Nicanor Parra is Dead

So What’s the Decision?

I’ve already answered that question:
to write as readers speak

En Qué Quedamos Entonces

Esa pregunta ya la contesté:
Escribir como hablen los lectores
& punto

Nicanor Parra died January 23, 2018 at the magnificent age of 103. The above poem is from his 2009 After-Dinner Declarations, translated by Dave Oliphant. I bought it out of nostalgia, even then was shocked to learn Parra was still alive. I hadn’t read the Chilean poet for years.

The Nicanor Parra that mattered to me was a paperback with a black and white cover called Poems and Antipoems, New Directions, 1967. It featured growth rings, the cross section of a tree. I might have bought it at the Crusade for Justice’s bookstore, although the stock there was chiefly Chicano lit: poems about Chicanísmo, diatribes addressed to carnales, declarations of intent to reconquer Aztlán. I got my copy of Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzalez’ I Am Joaquin there. My friend Juanita Dominguez translated Corky’s epic poem to Spanish so it could be published bilingually, although she got no credit for it. That’s how it used to be with translators and often still is.

In Poems and Antipoems, Parra the renowned physicist was turning poetry into epigrams, perfect for the minimal attention span I had then. I no longer have that book, but know one of its epigrams by heart:

Where liberty is a statue

Of course, I loved that one in particular. I was a bubble in a great wave of young Americans angry with our country then. Such a tsunami might be rising again now. The poet’s sister, the folksinger Violeta Parra, wrote “Gracias a la vida,” which became a kind of anthem. I knew a smattering of Spanish. Along with my marriage to someone who sometimes spoke it, Parra’s antipoems and movement songs taught me bits of the language. It was 1968, and I’d begun my first marriage to an activist who’d been a youth member of the Crusade.

In 1969, The Crusade held the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. Young Latinos came to Denver from all over the country for that event, Chicanos from Texas and California, Puerto Ricans from New York, Central Americans. The brown berets provided security and white people had to be frisked to enter the Crusade’s cavernous old church building on Downing Street. These fired up youth would go home to Chicago and Phoenix, ignite the revolution: that was the plan. “Por La Raza Todo, Fuera de La Raza Nada.” So many came, they ran out of beds. My husband and I let a young man sleep on our couch, decided to give him a ride home to New Mexico when the conference ended. It was a spur of the moment decision, the kind made so fluidly when you’re young.

I brought Parra’s antipoems along, edited by Miller Williams, translated by many. While the two men talked La Raza politics, I sat in the back seat, skipping the long poems, comparing pithy ones line by line to their Spanish originals, perhaps forming the first inklings of interest in translation. “Jóvenes” isn’t “Young Poets.” And the original includes “—creo yo—” while the translation omits “—I believe—” which adds a humble note unheard in the English version.

The Springs, Pueblo, Trinidad. Over Raton Pass to New Mexico. Every now and then I looked into the rearview mirror and met the honey brown eyes of the young man we were taking home. He was good-looking, intelligent. Although the place we left him in Albuquerque’s Mexican quarter was modest home-made adobe, he had an innate elegance about him, seemed a decent person. But the frequent eye contact, while he sat beside my husband over all those miles, was provocative. Still, I couldn’t stop looking, to see if he was still looking. Perhaps he sensed that my brief marriage was unhappy, that in a few hard months, it would be over, that I was already yearning for something I didn’t have. In any case, I spent time on that road trip reading Parra, was young enough to believe “Young Poets” was meant for me:

Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right

In poetry everything is permitted.


Escriban lo que quieran
En el estilo que les parezca mejor
Ha pasado demasiada sangre bajo los puentes
para seguir creyendo—creo yo—
Que solo se puede seguir un camino:

En poesía se permite todo.

It was fitting that I learned of the poet’s death from an Uruguayan writer I translated decades after failed Chicano marriages and attempts at revolution. Rafael Courtoisie’s online post simply read:

Murió Nicanor Parra.

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