Roberto Bolaño said in an interview that, for his money, Nicanor Parra was Chile’s greatest poet. Considering a country that prizes Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, not to mention such notables as Jorge Teillier and Vicente Huidobro, that’s saying a lot. In 2011, Parra won the Cervantes Prize, the most coveted literary award in the Spanish-speaking world. Turning 98 this year, the physicist/poet writes little now. Antipoems: How to look better & feel great, a bi-lingual edition of his late “antipoems” (written playfully, ignoring traditional forms, using vernacular, and sometimes even including graffiti-like drawings), is a good demonstration of his wordplay and sense of humor. The translations by Liz Werner are excellent, capturing Parra’s subtlety. In “Cambios” (“Exchanges”), for example, Parra lists a host of things, as if he were writing an ad on Craigslist:
Cambio lola de 30 I exchange one 30-year-old girl x dos viejas de 15 4 two old ladies of 15
Cambio torta de novia exchange wedding cake x un par de muletas eléctricas 4 a pair of electric crutches
After several more unusual and amusing exchanges, he ends with items that bring to bear the full weight of Chile’s recent history, its political upheaval of the seventies and its enthusiasm for the globalized economy of the eighties:
Cambio gato x liebre I exchange a knock-off 4 a name-brand
Cambio zapato izquierdo x derecho. I exchange the left shoe 4 the right.
Like antimatter to matter, Parra’s antipoems are a fun antidote to poetry that sometimes takes itself too seriously.