Ni Pena ni Miedo:
A Sentimental Education in Chile
Notes are given at the end of this file, with links that look like this: . Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text.
Preamble: The following travel notes  by Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson were written during and after a three-week journey to Chile in October of 2005. They were composed in a call and response spirit, the serial result approaching, one could say, a blend of renga, haibun, and poetry-cartoon bubbles. If its notational texture seems closer to waking dream than level-headed reportage, then perhaps we have found a form adequate to the experience we enjoyed.
As the travelogue recounts, we departed for Chile at separate times, meeting up in Andacollo, in the northern part of the country. This was the location of Festival de Poesía Cerros de Oro de Andacollo, the first of two poetry festivals to which we had been invited. We then made our way south. The second festival was the larger Chile-Poesía, held in Santiago.
And I, K, misimagine it: a colonial town, elegantly dissipated and pasteled, ringed by forested foothills, trout streams in the ravines, the baroque-era gold mines half collapsed and forgotten.
Road to Andacollo
Having arrived to Santiago ten days before F, I make my way up the spectacular coast via bus, stopping in seaside towns. Astonishing Valparaíso, to which F. and I will return; Coquimbo, with its handsome plaza, overseen by huge relief sculptures of Neruda and Mistral; before the latter, Vilos: windswept, scruffy place, where I stay up until 5 a.m. in a bar on the rocky beach, drinking with half a dozen mollusk divers, who are deeply impressed by the fact that I am an American poet on my way to an international conference in the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral. Two of them recite, from stumbling memory, five or six Chilean verses, some by 19th century Modernistas I’ve never heard of — great theatricality as they do so, hands held out or over hearts, tears and applause, bottles and shells of crab and sea urchins all over the table and floor, curses for the current neo-liberal “Socialist” regime of Lagos, which enforces a law that only permits them to dive in their home “region”; hurrahs to the glorious name of Salvador Allende, “True Socialist”; long tales of great adventure and danger that take place underwater, battles with giant octopi, and so forth…
And before Vilos, tiny Horcón, where the colored boats are pulled into shore by horses at low tide, where I meet Francisco, a fisherman in his late twenties, magnetic, with movie-star looks. We talk in the café on the beach for a long time, and everyone seems to go out of their way to greet him, especially the women; he’s clearly the man in town. I learn he plays the electric violin. He makes extra money that way in the tourist season. “Jean-Luc Ponty is my hero, a very advanced artist,” he says. “And out there, ten kilometers off the other side of that point, I almost died a few weeks ago, when the biggest storm of the year caught us by surprise.” Later I wander into the Restaurante Museo Horcón, two floors of curios and bizarre antiques everywhere. I meet the owner, Victor Suarez Johansen. He turns out to be one of the great collectors of Chile. His restaurant in Valparaíso is called Casino Social JJ Cruz and is more packed with artifacts than this one. He’s a small and intense man. He holds a little dog and wears a red sweater and green pants. “I own manuscripts by Neruda and the poncho he wore in Temuco when they celebrated his Nobel. I have many, many things. To collect is my life.” He gives me his card and tells me to call him when I go back to Valparaíso in ten days or so, as he expects to be there. He wants me and F to come to his house.
And this one, which we both regard, quietly, for some moments: “Thank you, Compassionate Virgin, for giving us back our son.”
Even within the town, mere blocks from the city center, there are numerous, towering mounds of a yellowish-brown cake, pocked with burrows — wastage from the 19th century or before, the policeman tells me. And the holes? People dig and crawl in, every so often, hoping to find something the first ones missed.
In Chile, the dogs are quasi-citizens, beloved. They roam wild, bother no one, doze on the sidewalks, heedless of the passerby. I have seen the dogs of Chile look both ways before crossing the street. At ease in their skins, as they say. But at night they howl, as if in terror, and who knows why.
Andrés Ajens, poet extraordinaire, close collaborator in “translucination” with the Canadian poet Erin Mouré: terrifically funny, wired, he stutters, waves his hands in flustered pauses, unleashes a cascade of seamless brilliance. It is his style. Everyone loves him, not least us.
The one that is four times as expensive as any of the other bottles in the shop.
National elections loom. Outside the offices of the local branch of the Communist Party, we help push a pick-up truck to get it started. It revs up, to hurrahs and backfiring and oily exhaust, and proceeds at jerks down the cobblestones, loudspeakers blaring a scratchy Victor Jarra classic. It moves off, toward the cathedral, red flag with the hammer and sickle at full wave. “Gracias camaradas estadounidenses!” the young driver shouts back to us. We stand there in a bluish haze.
In the cathedral’s outer courtyard, where the prayer plaques are, we’d chatted with an elderly man and a young woman, as they peeled back, with hoes, a fleshy muck from the stones: monthly strata of votive candle wax. Now our sticky shoes make little lip-smacking sounds inside this treasure chamber of alogical gifts.
He found her, it’s told, in a firewood pile, deep under branches and stumps, fully gowned in her white and gold, crowned and bejeweled. Why, we wonder later, deep into beers, would she choose to appear from a heap of timber? “Why not?” shrugs the dark-skinned waiter, smartly snapping off the tops from two half-liters.
The Virgin of Andacollo
Not since that night in La Paz, when Gisela slowly lifted the scarf from her uncle Jaime Saenz’s death mask, have I felt a more intense desire to run.
We don’t know it yet, but in two days, rocketing down the road in our taxi colectivo toward La Serena, tires squealing around the hairpin turns, the whole mountain will be covered in a spectral fog. A small picture of the solemn, doll-like face of the Virgin of Andacollo will dangle and dance from the rearview mirror.
When I’d first arrived into town, the driver, pointing out the establishment, had told me about him: “He runs the best place to eat and drink in all the town. But just so you know, he’s famous as a llorón.”
“Yes, he’ll be telling you about something, and then for no reason at all, he’ll start crying like a baby. But almost all the towns in these hills have their llorón. It’s a feature of the area.”
Or as they say in Andacollo: “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.”
Late the next night with Andres Ajens, Guillermo Daghero, and F, Ajens turns to me precipitously and, bird hands aflutter, asks, “And you, my dear Sir of the North, what do you hope to accomplish in your life?”
“Well, I’ve already accomplished quite a lot, don’t you know,” I say, feeling a surge of pisco- sour cleverness coming on. “I am, for one, the most famous poet of Stephenson County, Illinois, USA!”
There is a pause.
“In Chile,” adds Ajens. “The most famous poet of Stephenson County, Illinois, USA in Chile.”
Things had started better: the big assembly of students that greeted us; the blind disc jockey who recited Mistral and sang our welcome a capella; the opening banquet of high spirits and fine local fare; the attentiveness and kindnesses of the organizers. And the unforgettable poets: the dervish performances of Reinaldo Jimenez, brilliant editor of Tsé-Tsé; the young Román Antropolsky, fan of Zukofsky, his reading a torrent, the syntax dissolving, making a strange total sound; the distant Guillermo Daghero, his “object poems,” with open spaces, tables, statues, sheep, even the cow of Jacques Roubaud; the intense Susy Delgado, telling of Guaraní literature, of poetry codexes, lost books of bark, hidden away in forests and small towns; the enigmatic macaronics of the Mapuche poet Graciela Huinao; the echoing architextures of Silvia Guerra; the critical eloquence of Marcelo Novoa; the Saenz-inspired visions of Jorge Campero and Juan Carlos Orihuela; the wild humor and stunning capacities for drink of Antonio Gil and Miguel Coletti… Ajens beaming, gesticulating wildly, holding everyone together.
Basho or no, the books begin to pile up. Japanese businessmen offer business cards; Latin American poets offer poetry books.
Sifter at Gold Mine
Then he uncaps a bottle of his own urine (he tells us it is so) and squirts some of that over more mercury, and he rubs and rubs a sheet again with his palm. I’ve lost the thread of his demonstration. He has three workers who tend the primordial mills and sifters. They look at us, blank-eyed, as their boss excitedly, hoarsely, explains his trade. Something has happened to his face, his eyes are too large. Each week, out of it all, comes a nugget of poor gold the size of a lima bean. Six thousand pesos, or twelve bucks to us at the exchange rate. The owner’s family lives on what’s left after the employees are paid. Now he wipes his hands a last time with the crusty cloth and leads us outside to the “souvenir shop,” a long table with dull-colored rocks and strange tin trinkets. He encourages us, gently, shyly, to buy, and I give him some money for a couple of small metal things whose purposes are mysterious to me. He is very happy. His little daughter comes up to him, and he takes her tiny, goggle-eyed face in his quicksilvered hands and kisses her head.
Zurita, elegant but thoroughly unpretentious, soft spoken, fully attentive as listener, grimaces and shifts slightly every so often. He’s left the hospital early, two days after kidney stone surgery, so to be here.
He’s written what are perhaps the most massively scaled poems ever created. He’s done this with earth-moving equipment and with smoke-trailing aircraft. I tell him the aerial photo of his Atacama text, NI PENA NI MIEDO, the words one kilometer tall and three kilometers long, larger than the Nazca plain drawings, had stunned me — that the proffering of its gesture in a time of terror struck me as one of the most moving and powerful instances of artistic commitment I had ever seen. What I have been wondering, I ask him, with a surfeit of self-conscious cultural qualification, is if Robert Smithson had been any sort of influence in that project? He smiles and nods. “Yes,” he says. “I know that in some way the spirit of Spiral Jetty is inside the Atacama words.”
A man in dark suit peers at us over his copy of El Mercurio. The headline reads: “U.S. Denies Torture at Guantánamo.”
The waiter shoos the beggar away before he can get to us. He looks back, staring at me, caked white-hair, sun-leathered face, holding his hand out behind him as he’s pushed out the door.
Poets from two-dozen countries take the stage over the course of a couple days. It’s Chile-Poesía, one of the major Latin American literary festivals. F reads a poem in English, and the translator reads from the Mexican edition of F’s book. He’s quite good, this translator/reader. In fact, on this day, he reads quite a bit more passionately than F. There is loud applause from the large, eclectic crowd in the Plaza de Armas. That night, at a party, I talk pleasantly with Bei Dao, the only sober poet, it seems, in Chile tonight. “Where is that goddamned tyrannical pirate Paul Muldoon!?” a writer from Bolivia bellows, startling everyone. As the Bolivian has been sitting beside Bei Dao in a silent stupor for half an hour or more, his sudden question seems to have erupted from a dream.
Foro de Poesia
And then someone introduces Clemente Padin, the great Uruguayan visual poet. He is along in years now, comes slowly to the stage, talks quietly, movingly, about the time of dictatorship in the countries of the southern cone. He recalls fellow poets who were tortured and disappeared. He talks about concrete poetry and Mail Art as a key component of cultural resistance in Uruguay and Argentina during the 70s. A young member of Foro de Poesía moves around Padin, takes close-up, digital camera shots of the poet's face and of his hands, clasped behind his back. Afterwards, F and I go over to introduce ourselves. I'd been in fairly extensive correspondence with Padin years back, so this chance meeting is a delight to us both. We talk about the Montevideo of my youth and how things have changed, about the recent victory of the left Frente Amplio, about Padin's associations with Fluxus and Noigandres, about who's on top now in Uruguayan soccer. It's a pleasant chat. The younger Chilean poets are gathered around, taking it in. Padin is legendary, a hero to them.
Forrest Gander at the Wishing Well at Parra’s Studio
with a tiny orange car parked outside it — is labeled Parra!
We wander down the road from the hotel to Parra’s “Casa del Poeta,” his writing retreat. Gate locked, we hop it. It’s a modest place, with tiled roof, shutters closed and padlocked. In the unkempt yard there’s a weather-beaten tree house for guests, an empty well, two broken chairs, and a rickety little table. Cigarette butts on the ground, the roll-your-own kind. We poke around. Just us, a jackrabbit, and a murder of cawing crows. Not too long from now, after he’s gone, this couple or three acres will no doubt be put, like Neruda’s home, on the register of the country’s historical landmarks. For now, it’s just a boarded up, empty dwelling, an anti-house, waiting.
Kent Johnson at Parra’s Studio
And that he came while we were doing our tourist duty at the house of his great poetic antagonist, Neruda…
View from Neruda’s House
That night, I will have a rare color dream of a slight 91 year-old man, with a great, white lion’s mane, driving the long, snaking roads of the Chilean coast, in an orange VW Beetle.
I had bought a large, gorgeous book, the cover a stunning black and white photo of Parra holding out his hand, claw-like toward the viewer. His long-awaited translation of King Lear… Books are extremely costly in Chile, and this one came in at close to $40. I’d added it to the pack of things left with the young caretaker who’d shooed us away the previous day, hoping Parra would sign it. “You know,” I mutter, “He didn’t return our books to us when he came by the hotel. Maybe he thought we were making some kind of weird gesture, giving his books back to him. A kind of anti-gift of poetry, or something.” We go back to chewing on our locos.
The Technicolor Houses of Valparaíso
The bar is El Dominó. The next day I learn that this alcove, where we’d sat by chance, was Neruda’s favorite spot there. When the bar was sold some years back, the old owner took with him the autographed photo of the poet that had hung above the little table. I learn this from the elderly owner of a venerable bookstore on Avenida Pedro Montt. I have bought a lovely book titled Neruda Returns to Valparaíso, full of photos. The owner and his staff of three wear white smocks, like doctors. “Oh, yes,” he chuckles, “I drank with Don Pablo at El Dominó on more than one occasion.”
It’s the Bar Cinzano, the oldest in Valparaíso, and Chile’s most famous tango venue. Ten days before, working my way toward Andacollo, I’d spent twenty minutes with Don Manuel Fuentealba, one of the country’s most renowned singers. Sixty-something, a handsomer version of Herman Munster, he’d come over on his break to say that not many gringos come to tango evenings at the Cinzano. I told him I’d spent my childhood and adolescence in Montevideo and had been reared on the stuff. He spent the next set crooning classics by Gardel, looking at me almost fixedly from the stage. Tango, when it’s good, can make any man a llorón.
A View of the City
Houses built, literally, one on top of another, into one another. Cobblestone streets are the norm in the cerros. We wander them on Cerros Victoria and Concepción. They wind Calvinoesque, the city more a beehive maze the higher one goes. Wherever one looks, antique marvels: big as a battered four-storied relic there, poised on a drop like some conceptual dare, or small as a bronze hand for knocking, here, on a two-hundred year old door. A knife sharpener spins his wheel outside the café, calling for more blades. A man in rubber boots cranks an organ grinder by the funicular entrance…
Indispensable to the city’s daily life, the twenty-six funiculars, rickety boxes that lurch up and down the hills on ancient tracks, are preserved by the government with grants from UNESCO. Preserved in the sense that they seem about to fly apart at their 19th century seams… We clack upward toward the Street of the Yugoslav, and the pitch down the track is steeper than a roller coaster’s. That empty feeling in the groin. A woman of stern visage, on her way home or to work, we don’t ask which, stares at us, biting at a kumquat, yarn and needles sticking out of her bag. However ho-hum it may be to the inhabitants, the city’s dizzying bricolage, on the verge of tumbling into the glorious, aquamarine bay, mesmerizes us.
One of Nicanor Parra’s poems in Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great, newly released by New Directions, reads: “The world needs more Violet.”
In the seafood stalls of the mercado, there are astonishing arrays. The horrific congrio with their greyhound heads and snake tails; the giant centolla crabs, impossible beings, and their smaller cousins, the jaivas, in claw-waving heaps — exquisite raw, these last, straight from the shell, with salt and lime. And the wunderkammern display of mollusks: choritos, ostiones, ostras, erizos, machas, picorocos, locos, piures, the last four particularly bizarre and found only in waters of Chile. Especially the piures: black, rocky, forearmed things, orange slime puttying from fissures, weird algae, flotsam, and sea-lice, some still squirming, accreted to the dark carapaces. Piures look like something ripped deep from a camel, after it’s rotted a week in the desert. When boiled, their meat glows brighter than hunting vests. Viscid and steaming in a bowl, they make a budget lunch for the poor. They taste like iodine, go down like phlegm, and are reputed, at large quantities, to enable powerful, multiple orgasms. Chochayuya, a seaweed that looks like a desiccated horse penis, is said to relieve bunions.
Victor Bustamante, owner of the wonderful Librería Iván on the Plaza Aníbal Pinto, spends two hours with me, rummaging in back rooms, looking behind framed old maps propped on high shelves, going up ladders and pulling down antique and recent books by poets of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. He has the most complete collection in the world, he says, of the region’s poetry, and there is no reason not to believe this. He arranges the books in piles, by “tendencia”: traditional/official; semi-official; experimental/radical. “But,” he apologizes, “I can’t show you the great book of the most radical poet of all Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Juan Luis Martínez. That book was an edition of one, and it was a box, a large box of pine, and when you opened the cover of this book, you saw it was filled with dirt and sand and pieces of clothing and shoes and animal bones and nails and shells and lots of things. It is titled La Poesía Chilena (Chilean Poetry). It changed everything.”
The life-sized daguerreotype of a younger Whitman dominates the fourth storey bedroom with panoramic view. He looks out over the bay, one of the roughs, as if still part of a living crowd, as if still with us, generations hence… And here, over a sink the shape of scallop shell, is Neruda’s bathroom mirror. I look into it and my face is there, exactly where his face so often was. Of course, all mysticism and allusion aside, I don’t look a damn bit like him.
David Shapiro has urged us to look up members of the Valparaíso School of Architecture, a grouping of experimental architects whose designs, he’s enticingly told us, are similar to the Russian School of Paper Architecture — fantastical, uninhabitable constructions, or else implausible blueprints, never meant to be built. Coming down a steep street on Cerro Victoria, we see behind a fence a two-storied, house-sized box of thick iron girders, nestled tightly between tall, elegantly ruined homes. It looks like the substructure for something built to last ten thousand years. But the network of beams is so closely spaced, the lattice so cramped, there is no possible place for any eventual rooms. There are vines winding around it and wildflowers everywhere all around and within it. Swallows fly through it. We stand there, scratching our heads and laughing, ask a teenager coming down the hill if she knows what it is. She is very shy. “Oh, I don’t know, I guess I never really paid any attention to it. ¿Quién sabe?” Only later, over the bottle of Santa Emiliana at the Bar Cinzano, watching Twister on the heirloom TV, does it occur to us: The Valparaíso School of Architecture!
On Plaza Santomayor, you have to be careful. It looks something like a pedestrian mall, but cars and buses zip up and down on either side of the undifferentiated center of the square, devoted now, post-Pinochet, to large-scale installations of contemporary art. Currently, there is a show of dozens of ten-foot high photographs by various artists, set up on scaffolded pipe frames, each photo given to macabre, mysterious, or erotic (or disturbing articulations of these) displays of the naked body, a number of them perfectly shocking. It is very popular, this show called “Cuerpos Pintados” (Painted Bodies). People wander amidst it, laughing, thoughtfully gazing, chatting: bohemian types, nuns, school kids in uniforms, young men in hard hats, families on outings… The show is smack in front of the imposing baroque edifice that houses the national headquarters of the Chilean Navy, from where a good deal of the dirty war that tortured, killed, and disappeared tens of thousands in the 1970s was directed. A cluster of girls giggles beneath one of the pictures: two towering dwarfs, their penises half as long as their legs, joyously kiss against a backdrop of clouds.
It’s the Casino Social JJ Cruz, owned by Don Suárez Johansen, the antiquities collector I’d met in Horcón!
I ask the waiter if Don Suarez is in town. “No, no, he called in today, still in Horcón.”
A darkened cabinet of stopped pocket watches above them.
The Message on the Medium
Forrest Gander’s author notes page gives more recent information on his work, as does Kent Johnson’s author notes page on his.
1 Sections of this essay appear, in different form, in the Spring 2006 Conjunctions, an issue devoted to innovative essays, edited by Bradford Morrow.
2 Unferth is Beowulf’s human nemesis in the Old English poem saga
3 Raul Zurita is currently trying to raise attention and funds for the installation of his poem on these cliffs. Anyone interested in helping should contact Zurita or the authors of this essay.
For a concise introduction to the history, geography (a clear map), politics and culture of Chile, see http://geography.about.com/library/cia/blcchile.htm
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