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July 21, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Translation: Gonzalo Rojas

Gonzalo Rojas, the youngest poet in Latin America

Gonzalo Rojas, the seventh son of a coal miner, born 1917 in Lebu, Chile, and going strong at 92, is often introduced as “the youngest poet in Latin America.”

Rojas’ vocation as a poet begins with a stroke of lightning. One day when he was a boy there was a thunderstorm in Lebu, and as little Gonzalo marvelled at the torrential hail on the zinc roof, one of his brothers said the word lightning, relámpago, and the word, RE – LÁM – PA – GO, was larger and more awe–inspiring than the very phenomenon of nature. “Since then, I have lived in the zumbido, the buzzing of words.”

Gonzalo Rojas’ poems begin with that instantaneous blast that separates the verbal from the material, charging language with spirit, making the words buzz like angry bees. His mind is a rich symphony that turns on a dime, in “simultaneous explosion, instantaneous spin.” Touch him and he’s already gone. Catch up to him and he’s already on to what’s about to happen. “I’m just passing through here among the stars.”

From 1936 when Rojas joined the surrealist group Mandrágora, his work spans more than seven decades of tireless invention.  “These days in Chile,” he tells me, “there are a lot of jóvenes who are lazy, they haven’t read enough, they fall into an easy colloquialism, they don’t know how to work the word. You have to work to develop the ear. And the eye. The eye becomes the ear and the ear becomes the eye. They vibrate transparent. You work not with the five senses but with the twenty senses of the poet, the forty senses.”

Rojas remembers, as a young university Surrealist, dropping by Vicente Huidobro’s place and complaining that he was tired of his Latin assignment. “Reading Ovid?” the older man sniffed. “Don’t you know that today’s poetic imagination is allied to scientific imagination? You have to go to the new physics, to biochemistry, to astronomy, and let go of all that rotten rhetoric!”

Rojas got mad. “Well, you’re certainly very Vicente Huidobro, but you’ve never read these Roman elegies or any of the classics so what do you know about it?”

“Huidobro just looked at me in silence with those magnetic eyes,” Rojas remembers, “began to pace around the room and started to recite Ovid by heart: Cum subit illius tristissima noctis imago… I was ashamed of myself, and changed the subject.”

In September, 1973, Rojas was Chilean chargé d’affaires at the mission in Havana. “I wasn’t really caught up in the revolutionary fervor. It seemed to me that the basis of that enthusiasm was a lot of rhetoric.” Pinochet’s dictatorship, however, immediately invalidated his passport. The only country that would receive him and his wife was East Germany. He was given a university post, but he wasn’t allowed to teach any students. “They didn’t trust me. I didn’t have an orthodox background as a socialist realist or a realistic socialist.”

In the last two decades, Rojas has received the greatest prizes in the Spanish-speaking literary world, including the Premio Reina Sofía, awarded to him by the King of Spain, but the body of his poetry is still sparsely represented in English — you can order my translations of his selected, From the Lightning (2008), from Green Integer.

In the depths of his house in Chillán, as long and narrow as a train, I find Gonzalo Rojas’s altar to his poets. Overlooking a twelfth-century wooden statuette of Kuan Yin, there they are: skinny 22-year-old Pablo Neruda on a beach in Burma, taciturn César Vallejo, haunted Vicente Huidobro, myopic Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo de Rokha with his forehead like a thundercloud, and Gabriela Mistral in her schoolteaching days.

We drive through forest and vineyard toward the rock and snow of the Chilean cordillera. Here, by the cabin he named El Torreón del Renegado, the Tower of the Renegade, Don Gonzalo is haunted by the death of his wife Hilda. She built this wooden table that overlooks the river. They sat side by side here on these rocks when she told him about the cancer. It was a lung cancer, virulently fast; she had never smoked. “She was very brave,” he says. “She only cried the one time. She was a ballerina.”

We walk down by the Río Renegado, turbid with glacial silt and volcanic sulfur. Don Gonzalo notices a big, ugly branch stuck in some rocks. “Let’s get it out of there!” I tiptoe out on the wet, black, unsteady stones, hoist the ungainly thing—like the flapping arm of some immense paleozoic amphibian—and lift it toward the bank. The poet, very strong, but not altogether steady on his feet with his nearly eighty years, gets hold of it, and together we wrestle the stick onto land. Both of us have mud on our hands and slime on our pants. Don Gonzalo looks down at the mess. “That’s what I like!” he crows. “Impure poetry!”

Here’s one brief luminous poem by Gonzalo Rojas. Its rhythm sings in my blood, and I hope in my English translation. Sorry, but it seems that WordPress isn’t giving me stanza breaks, so I’m putting the middle stanza of three in each language in ital.

¿Qué se ama cuando se ama?

¿Qué se ama cuando se ama, mi Dios: la luz terrible de la vida

o la luz de la muerte? ¿Qué se busca, qué se halla, qué

es eso: ¿amor? ¿Quién es? ¿La mujer con su hondura, sus rosas, sus volcanes,

o este sol colorado que es mi sangre furiosa

cuando entro en ella hasta las últimas raíces?

¿O todo es un gran juego, Dios mío, y  no hay mujer

ni hay hombre sino un solo cuerpo: el tuyo,

repartido en estrellas de hermosura, en partículas fugaces

de eternidad visible?

Me muero en esto, oh Dios, en esta guerra

de ir y venir entre ellas por las calles, de no poder amar

trescientas a la vez, porque estoy condenado siempre a una,

a esa una, a esa única que me diste en el viejo paraíso.

What Do You Love When You Love?

What do you love when you love, my God: the terrible light of life

or the light of death? What do you seek or find, what

is this: love? Who is it? woman, with her depth, her roses, volcanoes,

or this red sun, which is my furious blood

when I enter into her up to the final roots?

Or is it all a great game, my God, and there is no woman

nor man but one body only: yours,

split up in stars of beauty, in fleeting particles

of visible eternity?

I’m dying in this, oh God, in this war

of coming and going among women in the streets, of not being able to love

three hundred of them at a time, because I am always condemned to one,

to this one, to this only one whom you gave me in the old paradise.



Leave a Comment
  1. Frank Wynne / Mar 9 2011 3:18 am

    Dear John Oliver Simon,
    I am a literary translator, currently working on Tomás Eloy Martínez’s valedictory novel “Purgatorio”; in it, he quotes the opening lines of Rojas’ poem La Preñez: “Hembra que brama mea amor/hermoso y entra en Dios, animaliza/y aceita el seso de su hombre/torrencial encima,”

    Though it is not among those in the collection “From the Lightning”, I know that you have translated other poems for journals and for the earlier Red Dragonfly collection – I was wondering if La Preñez is among them – if so I would like to suggest to Bloomsbury (who are publishing Tomás’ novel) that we use your translation since you have championed his work and are his translator of record.

    Warm regards

    Frank Wynne


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