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May 25, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Gonzalo Rojas Dead at 93

Usually introduced as “the youngest poet in Latin America.” Chilean Surrealist and Queen Sofía Proze Laureate Gonzalo Rojas, born December 20, 1917, the seventh son of a coal miner, in Lebu, Chile, where mine–shafts burrow under the ocean floor, passed away on April 25. 2011 in his home in Chillán. He had been incapacitated since a stroke in February.

Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011): la muerte de un poeta

Gonzalo Rojas was showered, starting in his mid-70’s, with the highest poetry honors of the Spanish-language poetry world, the verey first Premio Reina Sofía, from the hands of the King of Spain, and the Chilean National Prize, both in 1992; later the Octavio Paz prize  from Mexico, and the José Hernández from Argentina.Rojais’ crowning honor, the Cervantes Prize, came in  2004. My translation of a selected Rojas, From the Lightning (2008), is available from Green Integer Press. There is a handcrafted 12-poem chapbook as well, from Red Dragonfly, Velocities of Flight.

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.”

Gonzalo Rojas’ vocation as a poet began 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 somehow 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.

His father died when Gonzalo was five years old. To Gonzalo, his youngest child, he left a pony. One day somebody stole his pony, and it was as if they had stolen his father, stolen his childhood. After Juan Antonio Rojas died, his widow moved to Concepción and survived by renting rooms in the red–light district, placing each of her children in a different private school where they were always expected to be first in their class and win a scholarship year after year, which Gonzalo duly did, until he left home at 18 with a third-class ticket on a boat headed north. When the boat docked in Valparaíso he sacrificed his few pesos to buy A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “That adolescent artist was me, that book was the mirror of my soul.”

From 1936, when Rojas joined the surrealist group Mandrágora, his work spanned more than six decades of tireless invention. As a young University surrealist, Rojas’ master was none other than Vicente Huidobro, who had no chair in the faculty but at whose Santiago apartment Rojas used to come by to argue and learn. Huidonro told him to studuy the c lassics. Rojas got pissed off. “Well, you’re cetianly very Vicente Huidonbfro, but what dop you know about the classics?”

Huidobro “just looked at me with those magnetic eyes, 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.”

“These days in Chile,” Rojas told me, in a quintissential curmudegon’s complaint I am only now becoming old enough to appreciate, “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.”

In the depths of his house, as long and narrow as a train, I found Gonzalo Rojas’s altar to his poets. Overlooking a twelfth–century wooden statuette of Kuan Yin, 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.

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.”

We drove uphill through forest and vineyard toward the rock and snow of the Chilean cordillera. At 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 walked down by the Río Renegado, turbid with glacial silt and volcanic sulfur. Don Gonzalo noticesda big, ugly branch stuck in some rocks. “Let’s get it out of there!” I tiptoed out on the wet, black, unsteady stones, hoisted the ungainly thing—like the flapping arm of some immense paleozoic amphibian—and lifted it toward the bank. The poet, very strong, but not altogether steady on his feet with his nearly eighty years, got hold of it, and together we wrestled 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 cros. “Impure poetry!”

I saw Gonzalo Rojas last in Chillán, in 2001. We hung out and signed the numbered copies of the Red Dragonfly book. He had a pull-up bar in his patio garden. “I do ten pull-ups every morniong,” he told me, doing one.  He said he had two current girl0frioends, one down the road imn Concepc ión, Chile, smoking 50 cigarettes a day as she drove back and forth to see him, and one in  Monterrey, Mexico,. Rojas had recently givea  areading in Monterrey. Some guy was coughing. Rojas fixed him with a stare. “No soy muy aficianado del tos,”  he sentenced. I” am not a bug fan of the cough.”

Later he found out that it was his girl-fbriend’s husband that was coughing. Cuidado, Don Gonxalo, I told him,  Be careful, in the north of Mexico they carry pistolas and they might shoot you.

The poet drew himself up to his full, bald, five foot two, “¡Moror!” Rojas proclaimed, “A los ochenta y quactro años, a las manos de un esposo celoso, ¡esta la muerte de un poeta! To die at eighty-four at the hands of a jealous husband, that is the death of a poet!”

He sent me one last email “Asomate por Chile,” but preoccupied woth granddaughter and poetry translation in the schools, I didn’t go down there. Ya se fue. Buenas noches, Don Gonzalo.

Here’s a taste of Gonzalo Rojas:

*

¿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.

*

—translated by John Oliver SImon

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2 Comments

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  1. Pedro P. Fernández / Jun 14 2011 9:35 am

    Beautiful memory, John. And I have a question regarding the title of one of the poetry collection you translated: “From the lightning”: is this a direct translation of “Del relámpago” (the title of one of Rojas’ books) or did you mean to say what in spanish would be: “Desde el relámpago”? In spanish, the beautiful title “Del relámpago” means that the book is a “tratado” (treatise?)in the tradition of others: “Del Amor”, “Del valor”, etc. “Desde el relámpago” is another thing.
    Thanks!

    • johnoliversimon / Jun 19 2011 10:21 am

      Gracias, Pedro, for your close attention to the preposition. Equivalence of propositions is very tricky between English and Spanish, they slice up the pie of approach to things very differently, not always consistently. For another minefield, consider “por,”

      For Rojas, lightning is origin. From that zumbido de sílabas at the age of six, as if the rock were cloven by divinity and a spring bursts forth, issues his poetry. So I chose a more dynamic sense in English as opposed to a passive parsing. Sue me.

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