Tag Archives: Poetry

The coup in Chile, 40 years on

A dozen years ago, after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely on the Internet. The poem, which described the “neutral air” of New York as war broke out in Europe, seemed to capture the uneasy sentiments of many Americans as they struggled to comprehend the evil done in 2001:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

September 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Auden’s poem rings with irony regarding that tragic event as well:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

But who were the perpetrators of evil in 1973? Certainly General Pinochet and his cronies. But what about the American government under the leadership of Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger? What about the American public who remained silent as if in its own “euphoric dream”?

A friend once asked me what lessons I learned from researching Under a False Flag, my novel about American complicity in the Chilean coup. Although I am leery of historical “lessons,” I came up with four:

  1. If your elected leader lacks a moral compass, what can you expect but a rudderless foreign policy? Be careful whom you vote for, and remain vigilant and vocal.
  2. Fear begets deception and deception begets cruelty. During the Cold War, we feared the spread of Communism and frequently used subterfuge to counter it. But the outcome of our clandestine wars was often the opposite of what we hoped to achieve. How can a democracy win a war for freedom if it backs repressive regimes that are contrary to democratic principles and solely bent on self-preservation? Look at the brutal outcomes of our covert actions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Chile. Has the War on Terror replaced the Cold War to the same end?
  3. A plurality is not a mandate. Despite the constitutionality of Allende’s election, he did not have a mandate to convert Chile into a Marxist state. His presumption of a mandate led to political stalemate and obstruction. Chile became a dysfunctional state.
  4. Factionalism can destroy democracy, and extremism kills compassion and encourages cruelty. This happened in Chile with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and with the stubborn entrenchment of the political right and left. The middle class was neither large enough nor strong enough to neutralize the polarized segments of the electorate.

Of course, proponents of realpolitik might argue that America’s clandestine intervention saved Chile from a bloody civil war with many more deaths than the 3,000-plus who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Or they might point to Cuba and argue that Chile would have gone the same way—becoming a nation stymied by economic embargo, languishing in poverty, and lacking basic freedoms.

As I wrote Under a False Flag the philosopher Richard Rorty’s extraordinary book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity weighed on my mind. Rorty defines a “liberal ironist” as one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” and who hopes, while recognizing the contingency of such hope, that “suffering will be diminished, that humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”

For the liberal ironist, Rorty says, the question “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m X n other innocents?” is as hopeless and unanswerable as the question “Why not be cruel?”

At first I questioned that statement, but now I accept it. Entirely. No human being can rationalize the murder of 3,000 other human beings (or even one) for the sake of some other number. Not Pinochet, not the CIA, not the jihadists of 9/11. That may sound hopelessly idealistic but, as Auden says,

All I have is a voice,
To unfold the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.


Filed under Commentary, Quotes

The disinterred

The past has a way of haunting us. We think we have moved on, but events from long ago keep echoing in our consciousness. Isn’t that what William Faulkner so eloquently showed us?

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup in Chile, and because I spent so much time researching the events of that fateful year for my novel, I keep observing significant dates.

Forty years ago on March 4, general elections, which the conservatives hoped would reverse the course of the country’s move toward Marxism, re-energized Salvador Allende’s agenda even though the economy was in a shambles. On June 29th, it will be forty years since the Tancazo, the failed putsch that signaled what was to come, with far greater violence, on September 11, 1973.

The past refuses to die, and even the dead are not exempt. Last year, after disinterring the remains of Salvador Allende, the Chilean court officially put to rest the rumor that he was murdered. Forensic analysis proved once and for all that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot while resisting the attack on the presidential palace led by his own generals. The junta claimed all along it was a suicide. Even if it was, does that fact wash the hands of the men who stormed the palace?

Español: Salvador Allende y Pablo Neruda.

Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And now they have disinterred the body of Pablo Neruda, the poet and Communist Party senator who nearly won the nomination of the Popular Unity coalition instead of Salvador Allende. The scientists hope to dispel similar claims that the junta had him murdered with a lethal injection while he lay in the hospital receiving treatment for cancer.

Photo credit: El Pais

At Neruda’s grave on Isla Negra. (Photo credit: El Pais)

I suspect these tests will come to naught. And then perhaps Chileans will be able to bury these rumors from their disturbing past once and for all, and the dead may rest in peace again, even if the past refuses to.

In closing, a fragment from “The Disinterred” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D. Walsh (Residence on Earth, New Directions Publishing, 1972):

When the earth full of wet eyelids 
becomes ashes and harsh sifted air,
and the dry farms and the waters,
the wells, the metals,
at last give forth their worn-out dead,
I want an ear, an eye,
a heart wounded and tumbling,
the hollow of a dagger sunk some time ago
in a body some time ago exterminated and alone,
I want some hands, a science of fingernails,
a mouth of fright and poppies dying,
I want to see rise from the useless dust
a raucous tree of shaken veins,
I want from the bitterest earth,
among brimstone and turquoise and red waves
and whirlwinds of silent coal,
I want to see a flesh waken its bones
howling flames,
and a special smell run in search of something,
and a sight blinded by the earth
run after two dark eyes,
and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
rabid, boundless,
rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.


Filed under Commentary, Quotes

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face…”

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the world over, people are piping in the haggis in honor of Scottish poet Robert Burns, born on this day in 1759. How many poets are so well celebrated? Perhaps it’s because Burns was a poet of the people: vernacular, musical and often bawdy. He liked his whisky, he loved his women and he cherished his freedom. Here’s to you, Rabbie!

To a Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan o’ the Puddin-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

                         Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy of a grace
                         As lang’s my arm
The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

                          In time o’need

While thro’ your pores the dews distil

                         Like amber bead
His knife see Rustic-labour dight,

An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright

                          Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

                          Warm-reeking, rich!
Then, horn for horn they stretch an’ strive,

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve

                          Are bent like drums;

Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive

                          Bethankit hums
Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

                          Wi’ perfect sconner,

Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view

                          On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,

As feckless as a wither’d rash

His spindle-shank a guid whip-lash,

                           His nieve a nit;

Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,

                           O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

                           He’ll mak it whissle;

An’ legs, an’ arms an’ heads will sned,

                           Like taps o’ thrissle
Ye pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,

An’ dish them out their bill o’fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

                           That jaups in luggies;

But, if ye wish her gratefu’ pray’r,

                           Gie her a Haggis!

                                          –Robert Burns, 1786


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The inconsolable Mr. Hugo

Poet Richard Hugo was a native of Seattle, or technically, White Center, an unincorporated neighborhood familiarly known as “Rat City.”  White Center is a tough, rundown area of immigrants and low-cost housing, a place feared by many Seattleites as a lawless no-man’s-land of bars and gaming parlors prowled by gangs and prone to random gunfire. In Richard Hugo’s youth, the 1930s, it wasn’t much different–a hardscrabble place where the poor lived.

White Center permeates Hugo’s poetry. It haunts his memory; it shapes his language; it colors his moods. Even when he escaped–first into the Army Air Corps as a bombardier, then to the University of Washington under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke, and finally to Montana, where he taught poetry at the university–Rat City was always with him.

A friend of mine compares Hugo to Raymond Carver, another Northwest icon. She sees in his plain, hard and hopeless poems fueled by alcohol and persistent depression something akin to Carver’s minimalist stories. But where Carver reveals an occasional ray of hope, an unwarranted grace that might redeem, Hugo’s outlook is grim.

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir is one of Hugo’s later books (1973). In one poem he describes a bar in Montana where ritual for the passed-out Indian is to be laid upon a table to sleep it off. In another he writes of coming across a map of Montana on an Italian bar’s wall, where patrons cheer at the violence of TV westerns. And in still another he describes a bar in Dixon, Montana, a dying town that is “Home. Home. I knew it entering.” Even touring in Europe, the great tradition of poetry cannot dim his darkness. In a graveyard in Somersby, England he sees the headstone of a child and writes:

Mercy Jesus Mercy
cries a stone
b 1586
d 1591
and Tennyson’s brook
drones on

Most of Hugo’s poems are narrative in style, vernacular and unadorned. His is not poetry you will recite lines from, but you will remember its emotional punch long after putting the book away. Though you might want to save reading it for a sunny day.


Filed under Excerpts, Quotes, Reviews

Antipoet laureate, Nicanor Parra

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.


Filed under Quotes, Reviews