Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Not all poetry aims for beauty. Chilean Nicanor Parra's antipoetry assaults capital-P Prettiness as frou-frou leftover from an antique age. His language is blunt as a diner waitress's -- non-symbolic, non-lyrical. The antipoem's burlesque charm hits like a nightstick.

If the troubadour poets sang to their unattainable loves in the language of high mass, Parra's poem "The Viper" reminds us how love can enslave: "For years I was doomed to worship a contemptible woman . . .

Work night and day to feed her and clothe her,

Perform several crimes, commit several misdemeanors, . . .

For fear of a scornful glance from her bewitching eyes.

English Romantics mythologized childhood as a magical time, but Parra's "Memories of Youth" enacts the humiliating impotence of being forced "through a thicket of chairs and tables. . . ."

The characters stirred in their armchairs like seaweed

moved by the waves

And women gave me horrid looks

Dragging me up, dragging me down. . . .

Parra was a theoretical physicist by trade. His "Piano Solo" suggests how -- at the molecular level -- we don't so much vanish as change form:

Since man's life is nothing but a bit of action at a distance,

A bit of foam shining inside a glass;

Since trees are nothing but moving trees;

Nothing but chairs and tables in perpetual motion;

Since we ourselves are nothing but beings

(As the godhead itself is nothing but God);

Now that we do not speak solely to be heard

But so that others may speak

And the echo precede the voice that produces it;

Since we do not even have the consolation of a chaos

In the garden that yawns and fills with air,

A puzzle that we must solve before our death

So that we may nonchalantly resuscitate later on

When we have led women to excess;

Since there is also a heaven in hell,

Permit me to propose a few things:

I wish to make a noise with my feet

I want my soul to find its proper body.

To call life "A bit of foam shining inside a glass" evokes both test tube and champagne flute. Those crude elements become us, he says, the way wood becomes chairs and tables. To "make a noise with my feet" is a tribal stomp of outrage; for the "soul to find its proper body" is to meld with the eternal.

[Parra's poems -- the first two are translated by W.S. Merwin and the third is translated by William Carlos Williams-- can be found in "Poems and Antipoems," published first by Editorial Nascimento and republished by New Directions, 1966. Copyright by Miller Williams (editor) and Nicanor Parra.]

Mary Karr is a poet and the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

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