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E l i o t   W e i n b e r g e r

on Omar Cáceres

This piece is 1,300 words or about four printed pages long

All the stories from the capitals have grown familiar, but where are the histories and accounts of modernism as it was lived and practiced in the provinces? Latin America, for example, in the first half of the century, has shelves of unwritten magical realist literary biographies: The Peruvian Martín Adán, whose first book made him famous at twenty, and who then checked himself into an insane asylum, where he lived for another sixty years, writing on scraps of paper he threw away that were dutifully collected by the orderlies and sent to his publisher. Jorge Cuesta, a poet and the leading Mexican critic of the 1930’s, who castrated and slowly fatally poisoned himself as part of his alchemical experiments. Carlos Oquendo de Amat, a Lima street kid who published one book, 5 Meters of Poems, on a folded sheet of paper five meters long, then gave up writing to join the Communist Party, and bounced in and out of jails and tuberculosis wards in a half-dozen countries before dying in Spain just before the civil war. Joaquin Pasos, a Nicaraguan who also died young, who wrote Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Traveled about the places he hadn’t seen; Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Been in Love, which are all love poems; and Poems of a Young Man Who Doesn’t Speak English, which were written in English. Felisberto Hernández, a writer of stories unlike any others, more associative than narrative, who lived with his mother and wrote in a windowless basement, who paid for the publication of his books by playing the piano in bars in the Uruguayan hinterland, and who died so fat the funeral home had to remove a window to get the coffin out.

And Omar Cáceres: A Chilean, born in 1906, who worked as a violinist in an all-blind orchestra, of which he was the only sighted member. In 1933, hearing that a group of young poets was meeting in a café‚ to put together an anthology of the new Chilean poetry, he walked in, waited until one of them was alone, gave him a poem, and left. The group wrote him, asking for more work, and he agreed to meet on a busy street corner. He handed over a manuscript and kept walking — a tall, thin figure with empty eyes and the ‘elegance of a ghost,’ as one of the poets, decades later, recalled.

Omar Caceres

Drawing by Antonio R.Romera,
the only known portrait of Omar Cáceres, courtesy Eliot Weinberger

In 1934, his brother paid for the publication of a book of fifteen poems, Defense of the Idol (Defensa del ídolo). The book, somehow, had an introduction by Vicente Huidobro, the only one he ever wrote for another poet, though it is unlikely the two met. (Could it be a forgery?) Cáceres, disturbed by some typographical errors in the book, burned all the copies he could find. Only two are known to survive. In 1943, the exact date is unknown, he was murdered by assailants unknown for reasons unknown. All that remains of his work are those fifteen poems and a statement, ‘I, Old and New Words,’ that he wrote for the anthology. (‘Those who have loved greatly and have contemplated the WHY of their suffering when they lost forever what they loved, those are the ones that must understand me.’) Nothing else was published elsewhere, and nothing else is known about him.

Here is a translation of the first poem in the book, a hint of how truly weird these poems are, with their continual shifts of register, ironic (or possibly not ironic) bits of inflated language, mysterious references, unlikely word-choices, torments of taboo, and sudden outbursts of confession:

Mansion of Foam

      With my heart, beating you, oh unbounded shadow,
I graze the total zest of these eternal-images;
escaping his life, I think, he who flees cleans the world,
and thus is allowed to reflect his sweetly earthly likeness.
      A village (Blue), laboriously flooded.
The hard season will come balancing its landscapes.
Time fallen from the trees, whatever sky could be my sky.
The white road crosses its motionless storm.
      Speechless voice that lives under my dreams,
my friend instructs me in the naked accent of her arms,
beside the balcony of disciplined light tumultuous,
from where one is warned of still-undreamed misfortune.
      Dressed again in distance, between man and meager-man,
everything is wrecked ‘under the banner of the final adieu’;
I gave up existing, I soon fell abandoned by myself,
for a man loves only his own, obscure life.
      Unknown idol. What must I do to give it a kiss?
Legislator of urban time, unfolded, rushing, copious,
I confess my crime against myself because I want to understand it,
and on the reefs of its rock alcohol I spread out my words.

If he hadn’t died before my birth, I would be convinced that I had met Cáceres. At sixteen, for no particular reason, I was hitchhiking and jumping freight trains in the Atacama desert in the north of Chile, staying at mining camps where the workers, astonished and amused by this sudden apparition of a gringo naif, would feed me and let me sleep in the barracks. One of the camps was a sulfur mine at 18,000 feet, where I could barely walk or breathe or see from the clouds of sulfur dust, and where the miners survived with wads of coca leaves and lime in their cheeks. A week after I left, the whole camp was buried in a landslide.
      The only hostility I met was at a huge copper strip mine, the largest in the world, owned and run by Americans. I was not a novelty for the Texan bosses, just a crazy kid, and they threw me out as soon as I arrived. I spent the night hungry and unsleeping on a slag heap.
      The next morning, the first truck that finally came by picked me up. Having told the driver I was a poet, he recited Pablo Neruda to me, and then asked me to sing my poems. Humiliated, I could only mollify him with a few scraps of García Lorca. Hours later we came to a large town and I asked to be let off. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Sure.’ He smiled and drove off.
      I had wandered for a few blocks, wondering at the ornate but faded facades and signs, before I realized that there was no one there. I walked on, panicked. The town, like all the towns in that desert, was dust-blown and forlorn, but none of the buildings, far grander than elsewhere, was in ruins. The town was entirely intact, and empty.

Then, some blocks away, I saw a figure walking toward me through the knee-high clouds of dust. Not a ghost, but a gaunt middle-aged man in a three-piece black suit, shiny in places and dirt-caked in others, with a starched, formerly white shirt and a stick-pinned black tie, and he greeted me without surprise.
      The town had mined bauxite and boomed at the turn of the century, until the invention of an artificial substitute had caused its collapse. He took me through the bank buildings, the Grand Hotel, the telegraph office, the enormous opera house where Jenny Colon and the other stars of Joseph Cornell boxes had once sang. Someone still owned the town, and he had been hired to look after it. He lived alone with his ancient, shriveled, shawled and completely silent mother.
      The three of us ate a silent lunch of chicken broth and rice with bottles of unlabeled wine. Then he walked me out to the main road, gravely and ceremoniously shook my hand, and vanished. I waited many hours for the first truck to come, and, with time, forgot him until I read Defense of the Idol.

Eliot Weinberger talked about Omar Cáceres on the Australian Broadcasting Coroporation’s weekly radio program Books and Writing in mid-1998.

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