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.