Thursday, January 19, 2012

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Nicanor Parra

Nicanor Parra
ANTIPOEMS: How to look better & feel great

bilingual edition
antitranslation by liz werner
New Directions, 2004

Liz Werner has got to be one of the luckiest translators of all time. Living in Valparaiso while still in her twenties, she called up Chile’s famed anti-poet (then in his eighties) who told her to come right over.

Werner writes, “The house was full of sculptural artefactos, made out of handwritten signs paired with various household objects that changed the phrases or gave them second meanings. As soon as I arrived at the coast for the first time he showed me each one, and I came up with ideas for translation as we went from room to room. Some were in English already: for example the bible paired with a sign that said, “This book is not for fun.” I suggested, “This book is not for sale,” and he went to get a marker to change the sign. All this happened before I had even put my bags down.”

This same playful spirit fills the entire book. This is a bilingual edition and, because Parra often uses very simple language, even readers with a very small amount of Spanish will be able to see other possibilities for translation.

Nicanor Parra was a mathematician and physicist before he became a poet and Werner uses this to give the best explanation of “antipoetry” that I’ve found: “In 1928 a physicist named Paul Dirac came up with a mathematical equation that predicted the existence of an antiworld identical to ours but consisting of antimatter. Each antiparticle of this antiworld would exactly match each particle of our world, but would carry an opposite charge. viewed through the lens of antimatter, antipoetry mirrors poetry, not as its adversary but as its perfect complement; it is not by nature negative, but negative where poetry is positive, and vice versa; it is as opposite, complete, and interdependent as the shape left behind in the fabric where the garment has been cut out.”

The thought of trying to describe Parra’s antipoems brings immediate despair. Humor and sadness and frolic and outrage presented in a way somehow exceptionally naked. (“Presented” is already entirely the wrong word.)

My favorite antipoem is titled “Mission Accomplished” and is written in two colums, one a list of the contents of a life, one of numbers. The tally starts with

‘trees planted
children begotten
works published

sum total’

but soon moves on to:

‘regular kisses
“with tongue
“at the mirror
“Metro Goldwyn Mayer

sum total’

and eventually gets to things like:

‘literary gems
fathers of the Church
hot air balloons

sum total’

Meanwhile, on the other side of the page, the numbers are making a poem of their own. Sometimes appearing to comply, other times going quite splendidly awry.

While I lived in Santiago, I was impressed by the great fondness Chileans feel for Parra, still very much alive aged 97. (Everyone has an acquaintance whose grandmother is Nicanor Parra’s close friend. Everyone has met one of his children recently.) Although many people couldn’t give a definition of antipoetry or an antipoet, they are certain that Nicanor Parra is genuine, the real thing. They’re right.

No comments: