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July 9, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Landing in an Unknown Country: Chile

Mapuche Poet Elicura Chihuailaf (Chile)

How do you land in an unknown country and meet most of the poets within a month’s time (and maybe the best when you come back years later)?

Here’s how it happened for me in Chile in 1992:

Becky and I, two years into our long-term long-distance relationship, decided to go to Chile at the very last minute, and we arrived with no poetry-related phone numbers. We emerged from our North American summer via twenty-four airline hours into rainy Santiago winter, got soaked finding a breakfast empanada on the honking Alameda, and retreated into a creaking bed in the coldest room of the Residencial Londres (across the street from a former Military Intelligence torture center) in a high state of alienated jet-lag. What were we doing in the Southern Hemisphere? Even the water swirled down the drain in the wrong direction.

By evening the rain slowed. We walked around the dark bulk of the Cerro Santa Lucía, a last outcrop of the Andes jutting out from downtown Santiago, and stumbled into a bookstore in the Plaza Mulato Gil. Did they have any current Chilean poetry? The clerk scoured the shelves, and as I rifled through small press editions trying to form opinions on a quick skim, he asked me pointedly what I thought of one little red volume, Asunto de Ojo (A Matter of Eye). “Seems like the poet goes into a lot of bars,” I fumbled. “I’d like you to meet the author,” he said. Carlos Decap (born 1958): a quiet person, haunted and true, like his poetry, not impressive, not trying to impress.

In the Acapulco Bar the waitress

tells me about the days of easy money

when the prostitutes

came down like lovely flowers from the hils.

After they killed Che the Mafia arrived

and the police dropped in every afternoon.

A Wurlitzer in the middle of the bar

seems like a monument to better days.

Now all you hear are out–of–tune

cumbias on the radio

in the light of the universe of red cellophane.

We followed Carlos Decap to a book party in a hall full of tobacco smoke and mumbling chileno Spanish which took me weeks to click into. Afterwards, over beers, Carlos invited me to participate in a poetry marathon at the University. There were dozens of poets, angry, lyrical and intense. As we left after three hours of poetry the crowd was perceptibly thinning. “That’s the game,” said Carlos. “The last poet left is the autolector. He reads to himself.”

On that visit, I ended up at a poetry conference in Valdivia, in the Pacific Northwest-like South of Chile. An eleven-year-old girl showed up to read a precocious poem. She’s my friend on FB now: Yaneth Jiménez. I gave my students, as we explored down by the river, the assignment to write a five-line poem starting with the word Nunca. I wrote:

Nunca vamos a olvidar/ lo que hemos metido/en el armario más grande/ y oscuro en el mundo/ tic-tac del corazón.

We’re never going to forget/what we have hidden/in the biggest and darkest/ closet in the world: tick-tock of the heart.

But it wasn’t till the next time I swung through Chile, in 1996, on my Caminante trip, that I met the youngest poet in Latin America, the old master, Gonzalo Rojas, born 1917 and going strong. More on Don Gonzalo otro día— he deserves a post to himself. In 2008 Green Integer published From the Lightning, my Selected Rojas translations.

Also on that second trip in 1996, I met the longko, or traditional chieftain, of Mapuche poetry, Elicura Chihuailaf. The Mapuche were conquered in 1540 and rebelled within a generation:

Chile was founded in an epic poem. Alonzo de Ercilla (1533–1594), a contemporary of Spenser and Tasso, immortalized the tough resistance the rapacious Conquistadors encountered at the hands of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people in La Araucana, some 17,000 lines of ottava rima. This American Iliad, celebrating the nobility of native and invader, planted the seeds of specifically Chilean national awareness at the ends of the earth.

Lautaro was wise, industrious and quick,

of grand intelligence and sane counsel,

mild in his manner and noble in gesture,

neither large nor small in stature;

he put his spirit into large things,

strong to endure and remain composed,

hard, tough and nervous his limbs,

his back broad and his breast spacious.

Lautaro was a Mapuche orphan who turned up in the Spanish camp at the age of eleven, charming the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and his compañera Inés Suárez (the only white woman on the expedition and herself the protagonist of a terrific novel, Ay Mamá Inés, by Jorge Guzmán).  Lautaro was baptized Felipe and set to work as a stableboy. At sixteen, riding like a god, he ran off with a ramada of horses and put himself at the head of a Mapuche rebellion which succeeded in slaying his godfather Valdivia — one version has it by forcing him to drink molten gold.

After a stray arrow killed Lautaro, his rebellion was repressed, but in 1599, the Mapuche rose up and expelled the Spanish from all southern Chile from Concepción to Puerto Montt. Riding Lautaro’s horses, they kept the Winka at bay until 1883, when they were finally “pacified” [sic] by the contemporaries of Custer. Today, half a million Mapuche eke out a living on marginal farmland or crowd into poblaciones around cities like Temuco.

Isolated from the Mesoamerican megaculture, which extends in a long gradation from Arizona to the Atacama, Mapuche artwork blazes up into radial and vertebral patterns: heavy necklaces and cascading earrings, and brilliant, thick woollen cloaks and blankets, red, white and black, and the sacred color blue: kallfu. Wool and silver, like the Navajo, reflecting long resistance to, and coexistence with, the invader, the Winka.

A Mapuche family performs traditional dances on the Paseo Ahumada in downtown Santiago,. While the grandmother eerily blasts the kultrún, a sheep-horn extended with reed tubing, and a nephew bangs the deep sheepskin drum, two teenage sisters gallop with long wooden staffs carved into a suggestion of a horse’s head, first round and round, then diagonally at each other, buffeting each other with blows.

Elicura Chihuailaf writes:

Galloping, galloping, dreaming I go

along the paths of the sky

From all sides the stars come to greet me

Look at this in Mapundungu, the speech of the earth:

Wiraf, wirafgen, pewmantulen amun

Wenu Mapu rupu mew

Wallke pule chalipaenew ti pu wagulen

Wenu Mapu is the sky-earth. Mapu-che are the people of the earth. Pewma is dream. Wagulen are the stars. Roots pile up prefixes and suffixes in an agglutinative fashion, like German. The word kavallu, horse, was introduced to the language of the earth, one imagines, by Lautaro, at the moment when he ceased to be the stable boy Felipe. For verbs of movement, Mapundungu has no present tense. Either the arrow is coming towards you or it has already gone by. This culture is not vulnerable to the stroboscopic parable of Achilles and the tortoise.

A video of Elicuira Chihuailaf reading bilingually in Mapundungu and Spanish (I dunno if it’ll come out as a link, paste it into your browser):

The Mapuche today, 2010, are righteously pissed off at the government/big finance imposition of a huge dam on their sacred river, and fertile homeland, Bîo-Bîo.

I’ll close with, of all people (I don’t need to share the Chilean national oedipal obsessionwith El Poeta), a poem about the Bío-Bío by Pablo Neruda:

Pero háblame, Bío Bío,

son tus palabras en mi boca

las que resbalan, tú me diste

el lenguaje, el canto nocturno

mezclado con lluvia y follaje.

Tú, sin que nadie mirara a un niño,

me contaste el amanecer

de la tierra, la poderosa

paz de tu reino, el hacha enterrada

con un ramo de flechas muertas,

lo que las hojas del canelo

en mil años te relataron,

y luego te vi entregarte al mar

dividido en bocas y senos,

ancho y florido, murmurando

una historia color de sangre.

Here’s a translation done some years ago by a fourth-grader, Jenna Archer, in Poetry Inside Out (my day-job: www.catranslation,.org):

But speak to me, Bío Bío,

your words slide and slip

in my mouth, you gave me

a language, the nocturnal cry

mixed with rain and foliage.

You, without looking at a boy,

you told me the dawn

of the earth, the powerful

peace of your kingdom, the buried ax

with a quiver of dead arrows,

what the leaves of the cinnamon tree

told you in one thousand years,

and then I saw you give yourself up to the sea

divided into mouths and breasts,

wide with flowers, murmuring

a history the color of blood.


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