Reviewed by E.C. Belli
know what to sing. I am the others. I hope
the others are me. Like the trees.
I don’t know what to sing,
no nightingales on my finger.
It has taken centuries to say ‘orange nightfall.’
At the heart of Reasons for Writing Poetry, there is a figure: ostensibly, it’s all zebra from the waist down, but from there up, the Okapi, as it’s called, looks like a giraffe (it is actually a giraffid artiodactyl, a member of the giraffe family indeed). “Strange animal, the okapi—/ not quite zebra, not quite giraffe, timorous/ and nocturnal, in danger of extinction,” Chirinos presses (in “Mortally Wounded Okapi”). A kind of fluke of nature and stroke of genius, its disguise is deceiving: the Okapi appears to be two separate species at once. The poetry of the Peruvian Eduardo Chirinos has a similar disposition—and will—to take on the charms of such a clever impostor.
For one, it openly claims to resist the great lyrical temptation. Adroit translator Gregary J. Racz reminds us of this fact in his introduction, where Victor Vich is quoted saying that, “Beauty no longer appears as a value loaded with transcendental and idealistic signifieds but as an incomprehensible sign that begins to have very little to say” in Chirinos’s poetry. And Vich is correct. Yet, somehow, Chirinos slides lines past the reader, which might well have certain proponents of Ellipticism crying out for one of the most important poets of the Peruvian Generation of ’80 to defect to their territory: “Smoke is the sign preceding encounters, the errant ash whose fruit is the poem” (from The Book of Encounters) or “You’ve joined your neighbors in wild abandon,/ a woman dripping down between your eyes” (from Chronicles of a Man of Leisure). The low and high vernacular in turn; the almost-narratives; the sometimes-incoherent and the so-fragile-they-may-as-well-be-wounded selves; as well as the sporadic but unmistakable streak of velvet lining the language of some of his poems may have Chirinos running for refuge before being claimed.
In their quiet moments—as a result of their sheer terror, or, as Racz puts it more mildly, of their wariness of “falling back on trite symbols and utterances”—Chirinos’s poems bear a quasi-monastic humility; here words are recycled, themes are varied upon and not a single facet of the topics Chirinos explores is wasted:
What can I say about their soaked pelts,
their open, sightless eyes, their long
journey toward the sea of death? Not a thing.
They’re already dead.
Their fate is to rot in the sun
on the parched, brown Castilian plain.
And later, in the same poem (“Rats & Mice”):
In the town
where Vallejo was born the streets
smell like damp earth, like just picked vegetables,
like fresh bread baked without salt or yeast.
We rose early
that morning to find eight rats
lying in a pile at our hotel door: eight
dead rats facing skyward
on a rainy day
in the town where Vallejo was born.
Most of his lines in English are beautifully spare, candid, prosy in parts. We find the tone consistent but the mood changing.
In their more exuberant moments, Chirinos’s poems briefly come to terms with their underlying lyricism. And then it seems, without Chirinos’s will or knowledge (but with his eventual blessing), the commonplace suddenly appears transformed:
drag their destitution
through the streets
the dogs for
a place in this world
On the banks of the Volga
I met my first love
I remember her round face
Though some critics are drawn to what they refer to as a certain polyphony in Chirinos’s work, some readers may actually find that it is not a “multiplicity of voices” within each poem that we experience in Reasons For Writing Poetry so much as a changing mood, or different personality traits of a single, emotional, impulsive, fast-evolving and too-honest-for-his-own-good poet or speaker. Despite the apparent differences between a line such as “Fear is instinctive, I thought; there must be some animal in me./ Am I to live among the beasts and let my skin be damp with dew?” (from one of his first collections) and “Take some cotton and make a sheep paint/ its eyes she said paint its fear its tail its ears” (from one of his last), we can easily identify the attributes and characteristics which so define Chirinos (a sort of casualness in his address, a candidness in feel, the absence of a filter and the usual themes of creatures, death, and land) and hear him inside each line. The question therefore is not necessarily Who is speaking? Rather, What mood is he in today? Chirinos’s own take on his process, presented by Racz in the introduction, sounds like that of a parent looking to foster the individuality of each child: “I realize how difficult it is to present poetry without giving in to the temptation of propounding a poetics. I prefer to let the poems construct their own, even at the risk of their going adrift and capsizing in the attempt [. . .] It just happens that, after all these years, I still don’t feel like I know what I am ‘trying to express’ in my poems. They are smarter than I, and end up expressing me, while I allow myself to be expressed with alarming passivity.”
The task of the translator in this case could not have been an easy one—effectively rendering the same voice but in different periods of its experience. It is handled beautifully, however, by Gregary Racz who manages to preserve many of the characteristics that Chirinos scholars attribute to the poet’s work in Spanish. From the introduction, Esperanza López Parada recognizes an “abhorrent likelihood that something has already been said and the discomforting feeling that nothing new can be said” suddenly jumping “into the tranquil lake of [Chirinos’s] poetic diction.” José Miguel Oviedo, on the other hand, finds Chirinos’s voice to be “melodious, deliberate, cadenced, serene, and reflexive, which sets him apart from the poets of his generation for whom it was common to seek out dissonance and colloquialism.” All of these opinions are accounted for in the English verses rendered by Racz.
Like the Okapi whose camouflaged coloring is designed to preserve him, Chirinos is, quite literally, the world around him. He mirrors his surroundings (the simplicity and tragedy of everyday life: “Still one fine day you’ll see/ the cowherds brushing (or bathing) the calf to sell at a good price/ with the aim of moving just that much closer to Lima”), the digested canon (“They have called me the “Depraved of Depraved,” accused me of deceiving innocent creatures” in “Tiresias Speaks”; epigraphs at the start of nearly each poem conjure influences). Importantly, though, it is not an exact reflection that is sent back to us. Rather, Chirinos is an amalgamation of familiarity, of little shards of the mirrored world and experience, that, in their amalgam, have become strange and given him his originality, the power to endure: “That’s the way the world is, Edward, Edward,/ the world that makes of love an ear-splitting scream,/ that makes of love a broken windowpane.”
It is certain that Eduardo Chirinos’s poetry has carved away a little corner of safety for itself in the wider Peruvian poetic canon. Álvaro Salvador puts it beautifully, calling his defining trait “a humble and quite human lucidity characteristic of the Latin American tradition and, more concretely, of the Peruvian, a lucidity closer, in truth, to Vallejo or Quechuan poetry than to canonized European discourses.”And again like the Okapi, Chirinos’s poetry is a delicious impostor: beguiling in its simplicity, it is wrought with a shy lyricism which, though not immediately visible, nonetheless makes certain fleeting appearances (we may yet have to reckon with it). And that is perhaps what is most exciting about Chirinos’s work: its honesty, its willingness to let us be aware that it is still evolving, its demand on the reader to remain active in his or her experience of this poetry.
Eduardo Chirinos and his translator G.J. Racz will be presenting this volume at the Americas Society, at 680 Park Avenue, on Tuesday, September 27. The event begins at 7PM. For more information, visit the Americas Society here.
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