Testimony of Circumstances, by Rodrigo Lira
Translated by Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría
Review by John Venegas
I try to write these reviews from a perspective of cultural implication and value. That is to say, while all the technical matters of structure and diction and execution are very important, I try to emphasize the potential emotional and philosophical resonance of a work, not in a manner that tells you how to feel but to convey that the work in question has the capacity to affect at least one person on a profound level. The risk of approaching texts in this way is that, as you can probably imagine, the intimacy of this effect can wound in unexpected ways. We all build our defenses, even the most empathic among us, and yet no defense is absolute. No heart is immune to vulnerability. It is in this context, unwittingly confident in my inadequate preparedness, that I read Testimony of Circumstances, a compilation of the poetry of Rodrigo Lira, a Chilean poet whose reputation seems equal parts famous and infamous.
UNQUESTIONABLY beyond poetry (sic), / but certainly in the reach of originality, / European of the post-war era (…!) / were already experimenting with these gags / around 1950.
To those with a cursory knowledge of Chilean poetry, Lira’s name probably won’t be included in the list of those who first come to mind. His list of published credits is comparatively small and awareness of his work was largely a product of the local performative scenes in Chile. By all accounts that I could find, including the introduction to this collection, he is described as being at times endearing and loyal, at times abrasive and rude. Indeed, he seems a person of contradictions: he was born into financial, social, and educational privilege and yet a supporter of Salvador Allende’s nationalization policies; he will demand and beg for acceptance by his peers while critiquing them and their work, often in the same poem; he was known for his outspoken manner and perspective but also at times reclusive and afraid for his life. As you have probably gathered, there is some speculation that he had manic depressive disorder, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia (thought admittedly in an age where that tended to be a catchall mental diagnosis). But he was a being of words, in the purest literary sense, and despite his struggles, he has produced works of incredible beauty.
De modo que a veces es preciso o preferible moverse / lo menos posible para evitar tropezones y choques / pues siempre o casi o casi está el refugio / de utopiazantes pero posibles futuros
What Testimony of Circumstances represents then is a kind of pseudo-biography, a fascinating, disarming, and brilliant cross section of a life dedicated to literature. Everything is on display here – Lira’s politics, his contentious rivalries with those he wanted to regard as friends and/or peers, his utterly merciless inner voice – all of it. There is a richness of perspective present that caught me rather off guard. Some poems feel like they were written by entirely different people. “Es Ti Pi” is methodical and deliberate, laid out like mantras that are meant to wrestle a maelstrom under control, while “Tres Cientos Sesenta y Cincos y un 366 de Onces” is verbose and unchecked, rolling with gravitas and an almost palpable need to expel its words. Still other poems, like “El Superpoeta Zurita”, move back and forth between those styles, as if the speaker cannot make up his mind about his reaction to the subject, at once flattering and annoyed, caught up in awe and obsessing over blemishes. It gives an unnerving and empowering impression that Lira is trying on a multitude of essences before ultimately refusing to adopt any but his own.
construct and shape the trademark / registered brand, graphic territory – and at once, the logo – / of a certain motor oil, lubricating substance / which is said to have had – at least at one / time had – (1) psychedelic or psychotomimetic powers.
The structures of the poems are the truest manifestation of Lira’s quest for identity. There is a stubborn refusal to allow the reader to settle into almost any kind of rhythm, which only makes sense when you realize that lyricism and cadence are not primary concerns. We are pushed and pulled because Lira is ultimately trying to convey what it is like in his mind, what it feels like to be him. Again, the layout and line breaks in “El Superpoeta Zurita” are so interesting that it felt like Lira was asking me if I understood what he was saying and, when I answered yes, he told me I was wrong and rearranged. His identity and essence are pulled in a dozen different directions, all of which he holds onto lest they pull him apart and leave the unique perspective shattered. I found this particularly surprising given my reading about Lira and how important stage performance was to his career. This is the kind of poetry that would make most open mic night bards turn green. And yet, it makes its own kind of sense in hindsight. Lira refuses to be bound and defined in simplicity. He is not merely written or spoken word.
he aquí las mias / Quisiera poder mostrar algo / de diertas cancioraciones sinfeccionadas, sinfectadas / de ciertas esperrancias y herideas sincereceas / –sincavidades o con carieacontecidas concavidades
I have never quite been sure what the technical definition of conversational poetry is, but I would hazard a guess that poems in Testimony would be prime examples. That refusal of lyricism allows Lira’s diction to feel like he is there, speaking to you; not as a spirit or a god delivering edicts and making demands, but as a person trying desperately to explain their world view and hoping someone will listen. This manner of writing helps the reader deal with the stop and go momentum of the structure, but it also helps you keep up with Lira’s changes of perspective and thought process. It makes what seems like an initially daunting task actually intimately relatable. And speaking of daunting tasks, Rodrigo Olavarria and Thomas Rothe deserve all the credit in the world for capturing Lira’s essence on the page and through translation. Their work is the kind of accuracy you crave as a reader of poetry, accurate to both letter and spirit, with the flexibility to appreciate and utilize the cultural and linguistic divides to enhance the experience.
So what it comes down to is we should die simple deaths / without widespread panic or panspread widnic or wad spread pinic / gently, our traps shut
I mentioned earlier the capacity of literature to wound, particularly when you approach it from an angle that includes a combination philosophy, emotion, and the work’s ability to make you feel. In truth, I was not expecting Testimony to have such an effect. In the interest of complete honesty, as I read about Lira, I was rather concerned that I had agreed to read the ravings of that one poet in any random literary circle who acts like his decent reception at a few open mic nights means more than the work of published poets but who still desperately wants to get published himself. And now, I sit here, writing this, more than a little ashamed in the arrogance of that misplaced concern. Rodrigo Lira’s poetry is fantastic. Rodrigo Lira took his own life on his thirty second birthday. Rodrigo Lira’s written words have come further than almost any text I have ever read to bridging the gap between souls and allowing me to see into the mind of someone else. He deserved and deserves better, especially from me. I approach my own thirty second birthday and have struggled with mental health issues since I was a teenager. Lira’s work serves as a critical reminder that no perspective deserves to be treated with disrespect without merit, and that, in this age where people are finally beginning to wake up on a large scale from the illusion of binaries, that conformity and rebellion are two poorly defined points on a spectrum that is ever in motion.
Testimony of Circumstances is available now through Cardboard House Press.