Nicanor Parra died last week at the age of a hundred three. Here, David Unger remembers a collaboration with Parra that seemed doomed from the start.
I first began translating the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra in 1973, on the recommendation of Frank MacShane, the professor of my graduate translation course at Columbia University. I bought Obra gruesa, an anthology of Parra’s poetry published by Chile’s Editorial Universitaria at the Las Americas bookstore in Union Square. Back then, there were four Spanish-language bookstores on or around Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. Later, I picked up Poems and Anti-Poems and Emergency Poems, two New Directions collections of Parra’s work. At the time, I was a serious silk-scarf/whiskey-breath poet, best buddies with classmate Frank Lima, a Rimbaud-like, jail-schooled poet.
I devoured these three Parra books, then went about looking for poems that had not been translated into English. I found “Último brindis,” a cynical mathematical poem that exemplified Parra’s antipoetry philosophy, and translated it as “The Final Toast.”
Like it or not
We’re given only three choices:
The past, the present and the future.
And not even three
For the philosopher tells us
The past has passed
It’s ours only in memory:
From the rose stripped of her petals
Another petal can’t be drawn.
There are only two cards
In the deck:
The present and the future.
And not even two
Because everyone knows
That the present doesn’t exist
But in the way it becomes the past
And that’s passed…
To make a long story short
We’re being left only with the future:
I make a toast
For that day which never comes
But is the only thing
Really left in our control.
After workshopping it in class, I sent my translation to The Massachusetts Review, a journal I’d long admired. About a week later, I received a postcard from the editor, Jules Chametzky, saying that the poem had bowled over the editorial staff. Jules wanted to publish it on the back cover of their very next issue. Would I give them permission? Moreover, I would be paid fifteen smackers.
Early success, at twenty-two, got my head spinning about the lures of translation.
In 1978, Jonathan Cohen, Jonathan Felstiner, and I translated fellow Chilean Enrique Lihn’s The Dark Room and Other Poems for New Directions; in 1982, Lewis Hyde and I cotranslated the Nobelist Vicente Aleixandre’s World Alone for Penmaen Press. When New Directions signed Parra to a new book, I was tapped to be the editor.
From the start, Parra was deeply unhappy. He had expected Allen Ginsberg, with whom he had recently read at the Americas Society, to edit him, though Ginsberg hardly spoke Spanish and wasn’t at all interested in the task. Moreover, I was an unknown Guatemalan American poet thirty-six years his junior.
I wish I could say that Nicanor and I worked hand and glove. I truly loved his poetry, its anarchic, humorously irreverent style, the lack of pomposity and literary flourish. Like a good poet, according to T. S. Eliot’s dictum, I stole rather than imitated him in my own verse. But as his English editor, Nicanor tolerated me, at best, like a recurring hacking cough. I was never able to surmount his disappointment that I was not Allen Ginsberg. At the time, Parra was living on 110th Street in Manhattan with his artist daughter Catalina, and I was with my family on 113th Street. Nicanor was a phone call or a short hop away. On the phone, he was always floaty and reticent; whenever I visited him in Catalina’s apartment to talk about my ideas for the book, he would meet me dressed in pajamas, his gray hair flying like straw every which way on his head. He was eternally unshaven and only wanted to talk about his translation of Hamlet, especially the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Ser o no ser
He aquí el dilema
Two of these visits made me realize his slovenly dress was done a propósito—on purpose, a way to show his disdain without actually being rude. He was forever the trickster and reliably unconventional, but always with a motive. No wonder his poetry made readers feel they were being shot by a revolver point-blank in the face: the loud popping sound, followed by a white flag of surrender slinking comically out of the muzzle.
As editor, I wanted to honor his previous translators by including much of their previously published material. Nonetheless, I wanted revisions where I felt the translators had strayed, been inaccurate or wordy. For example, in their translation of “The Individual’s Soliloquy,” Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti had left out two lines of the Spanish. I made multiple suggestions to Miller Williams and W. S. Merwin for alternate readings of some passages; Williams accepted them all, and Merwin and I shadowboxed a bit before reaching a compromise. Denise Levertov absolutely refused to give me permission to republish her translation, in protest of Parra shaking Pat Nixon’s hand at the White House during the Vietnam War and of his unwillingness to save his imprisoned nephew Angel, son of the singer-composer Violeta Parra, after Pinochet’s coup in Chile. Her letter was venomous.
As I went about preparing my manuscript, Parra canceled meetings and refused to answer queries, which I sent by mail across the three blocks that separated us. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I assigned “The Man He Imagined,” a wonderful lyric poem about a lonely, heartbroken man who lives in a mansion, to Edith Grossman, a translator just hitting her stride and the author of The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra. Behind my back, Nicanor had sent this same poem to at least four other translators. I asked him why he had done that. He said translation should be a horse race and he should be able to pick the winner. He was very confident in his English, which I found poor, and the arrogance of this answer kind of stuck in my craw.
I told Nicanor that I had to meet him at once to discuss my role as editor. This meeting took place at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across from St. John the Divine near Columbia University. I don’t recall what he wore, but I’m sure he dressed for the occasion, expecting me to throw in the towel.
Heart pounding, I told him that as editor, I could not tolerate this kind of subterfuge. Translation is a painstaking art, and I couldn’t have celebrated translators, friends of mine, competing with each other like horses. Nicanor just sat there and listened without drinking his tea. From time to time, he pursed his lips and looked blank, ignoring my eyes and glancing at the nearby coeds. Without saying another word, he suddenly got up and left. He flew back to Chile perhaps a week later. He refused to answer any of my calls or letters. I suspected that few people had ever stood up to him before—his silence was his way of underscoring my unimportance and his authority. After all, Nicanor was an alpha male.
It isn’t easy for me to feel sad
To be honest
Even skulls make me laugh.
The poet asleep on the cross
Greets you with tears of blood.
—from “Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair”
I continued working on my manuscript, revising old translations, commissioning others. I submitted Antipoems: New and Selected to my editor Frederick Martin, who sent it on to Parra for his final revisions. Parra was an inveterate tinkerer; it was difficult for him to send a poem or his translation of Hamlet on its way. He never answered Martin, or any of his Chilean interlocutors, even when told that the book would go to press without his final edits if he didn’t respond by a certain date.
The book was published in 1985 with a wonderful introduction by Frank MacShane. I heard from several Chilean friends that Nicanor hated the book because I had published translations he was still working to perfect. The coup de grâce, however, was the New Directions cover, which he hadn’t authorized; he said, with great disdain, that Layle Silbert’s photo made him look like a monkey.
I can only accept beauty
Ugliness is something I find painful
—from “Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair”
For the next twenty years, Parra never mentioned the book I had edited. Whenever he submitted his bio for prizes, readings, and publications, it was as if it never existed.
Parra and I didn’t communicate again for six years. In 1991, he was awarded the first Juan Rulfo Prize by the Guadalajara International Book Fair in early September. It was a huge honor, and worth a hundred thousand dollars. I was covering the fair for Publishers Weekly and got New Directions to send twenty-five copies of my bilingual Antipoems to sell in Guadalajara. Two days before the prize was bestowed upon him, I ran into Nicanor in the aisles of the fair. Curiously enough, he embraced me happily and said, “Qué hay de tu vida?,” a common Chilean greeting. I mumbled something incoherent, I’m sure.
Was I simply a familiar face to Nicanor, or had he forgiven me?
I congratulated him, and he clapped my back several times. Then he said that he thought that his daughter Catalina would want to be there with him for the ceremony two days away. Would I call her in New York and see if she wanted to fly down? “Tell her that I’ll pay for her ticket,” he said cavalierly.
I thought this request odd, since he had known about the award for over two months, but the request illustrated his restrained narcissism. I truly wanted to make amends, but I didn’t want to do his bidding for him. In the end, I brought him to the press office, where he could use one of the phones to call her for free.
I’m pretty sure Catalina didn’t come (at least, I didn’t see her). Though Nicanor and I continued to have many friends in common—the Chilean novelists Carlos Franz and Arturo Fontaine, the translator Edith Grossman—we never again crossed paths. This was unfortunate because I truly loved many of his poems and felt that along with his fellow Chilean poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, he was a true trailblazer.
Sure—rest in peace
but what about the damp?
and the moss?
and the weight of the tombstone?
and the drunken gravediggers?
and the people who steal the flowerpots?
and the rats gnawing at the coffins?
and the damned worms
crawling in everywhere
they make death impossible for us
or do you really think
we don’t know what’s going on…
—from “Rest in Peace,” translated by Edith Grossman
Oddly, as time passed, I noticed that Nicanor began putting the book that I had edited into his biography and bibliography. Maybe, just maybe, I thought. Or … better never mind.
Nicanor was a great poet because he didn’t mince words. As he writes:
For half a century
Poetry was the paradise
Of the solemn fool.
Until I came along
And built my rollercoaster.
Go up, if you feel like it.
It’s not my fault if you come down
Bleeding from your nose and mouth.
—from “Roller Coaster,” translated by Miller Williams
David Unger’s latest novel is The Mastermind. His other books include Ni chicha, ni limonada; The Price of Escape; Para Mí, Eres Divina; and Life in the Damn Tropics. His writing has appeared in Puertos Abiertos, Guernica, and Playboy Mexico. He has translated fourteen books, including the Popol Vuh—Guatemala’s pre-Columbian creation myth—and the work of Rigoberta Menchú, Silvia Molina, Nicanor Parra, Teresa Cárdenas, and Mario Benedetti, among others.