Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, April 13, 2008; Page BW12

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,

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