June 30, 2011

Gonzalo Rojas

Gonzalo Rojas [Chile]

The seventh son of a coal miner, Gonzalo Rojas was born in the port village of Lebu. His poetic career, legend has it, began one day as a boy during a thunderstorm. As the young Rojas marveled at the torrential hail on the zinc roof of his house, one of his brothers said the word lightning, relámpago, a word which grew larger and larger the more he thought about it until it appeared absolutely awe-inspiring. "Since then," notes Rojas, "I have lived in the zumbido, the buzzing of words."

When his father died his widow moved to Concepción, surviving by renting rooms in the red light district. She placed each of her sons in a different private school, demanding that each be the first in his class. Rojas was dutiful and received a scholarship, but upon graduating he left the house with a third-class ticket for a boat headed north. At Valparaiso he gave up his few left-over pesos for a copy of Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, finding in the book's adolescent artist a mirror of his soul.

During the Valparaiso years, he worked as editor of the magazine Antarctica in Santiago and lectured at the University of Valparaiso. In 1936 he joined the surrealist Mandrágora group, founded by Braulio Arenas, Teófilo Cid, and Enrique Gómez Correa, but his work of these years also reflected more traditional Spanish poetic concerns, particularly metaphysical and social issues. His first book, La miseria del hombre appeared in 1948.

Rojas was the Chilean chargé d'affaires in Havana when Pinochet's dictatorship took over the country, and he was stripped of his passport and forced to go into exile as an undocumented person. The University of Rostock in East Germany hired him, and over the next several years he taught in universities in Germany, the US, Spain, and Mexico.

In 1979 Rojas received a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to return to Chile. He moved to Chillán south of the capital to live, but we was never able to return to teaching.

Between 1980 and 1994 he lived in the United States, serving as a visiting professor at Columbia University and the University of Chicago before becoming a permanent professor at Brigham Young University.

He was awarded the Chilean National Prize of Literature and Queen Sofia Prize of Iberian American Poetry (presented by the King of Spain) in 1992. He also received the Octavio Paz prize and Cervantes Prize for 2003.

From consequences of a stroke Rojas suffered in February 2011, he died on April 25 of that year and was buried Chillán. Together with Nicanor Parra, Rojas was considered one of the greatest of modern Chilean poets.


La miseria del hombre (1948); Contra la muerte (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1964); Oscuro (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1977); Transtierro (1979); Del relámpago (1981); 50 poemas (Santiago, Chile: Ganymedes, 1982); El alumbrado (Santiago, Chile: Ganymedes, 1986); Antología personal (1988); Materia de destamento (Madrid: Hiperión, 1988); Antología de aire (1991); Desocupado lector (1990); Las hermosas (Madrid: Hiperión, 1991); Zumbido (1991); Río turbio (Madrid: Hiperión, 1996); América es la casa y otros poemas (1998); Obra selecta (1999); Diálogo con Ovidio (2000); Al Silencio (Santiago, Chile: Dibcam, 2002); Latitudes extremas: doce poetas chilenas y noruegas (Madrid: Tabla Rasa Libros y Ediciones, 2003); Del loco amor (Chile : Ediciones Universidad del Bío-Bío, 2004); Esquizo (Chile: Ediciones Universidad del Bío-Bío, 2007); Quién no cumple cien años (México, D.F.: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2008)


selections in Ludwig Zeller, ed. The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America 1925-1995, trans. Beatriz Zeller (Oakville, Ontario, Canada and Buffalo: Mosaic Press, 1996); From the Lightning: Selected Poems, trans. by John Oliver Simon (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008)


I see a swift river shine like a knife, splitting
my town of Lebú in two fragrant parts, I listen
to it, smell it, touch it, run its length in a child's kiss,
as when the wind and rain swung me, I feel it
like another artery between my temple and the pillow.

It's him. It's raining.
it's him. My father's arriving soaked. The smell
of a wet horse. It's Juan Antonio
Rojas crossing a river on horseback.
No news. The torrential night collapses
like a flooded mine, lightning makes it shiver.

Mother, he's coming home: let's open the door,
give me that lamp, I want to greet him
before my brothers. Let me bring him a good cup of wine
so he can relax, and clasp me in a kiss,
and stick me with the thorns of beard.

Here comes the man, here he comes
muddy, furious against misfortune, raging
against exploitation, dying of hunger,
here he comes in his Spanish poncho.

Ah, immortal miner, this is your house
of oak, that you built yourself. Come in:
I am your seventh son. I've come
to wait for you. It doesn't matter
that so many stars have gone through the sky of these years,
that we buried your wife in a terrible winter,
for you and she are multiplied. It
doesn't matter that the night has been as dark
for us as for the two of you.
—Come in, don't stand there
looking at me, without seeing me, under the rain.

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Contra la muerte, 1964)


Between the sheets, or even quicker, in a love-bite
they undressed us and we leapt out into the air
already ugly with age, wingless, with the wrinkles
of the earth.

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Contra la muerte, 1964)

Aleph, Aleph

What do I see on this table? tigers. Borges, scissors, butterflies
that never flew, bones
which did not move this hand, empty
veins, unfathomable board?

Blindness I see. I see a spectacle
of madness, things that speak
only to be talking, to throw themselves
into the meagerness of that species
of kiss that approaches them. I see your face.

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Oscuro, 1977)


"Open your left hand wide, spread the thumb outward;
everything's written with a knife; debauchery
and discipline, tranquil and turbulent
days in the net; the saddest
girl weeping; the identity
of the one in three, you understand? long childhood
under a broken star; travelling, why so many
voyages upon voyages; the accident that night
in Madrid; honors, many honors,
blows of the helm; a terrible punishment
until you bleed, how you bleed; more changes
under the protection of Jupiter always; growth
toward distance in two children; he it spills out,
close that madman's hand, you intellectual."

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Oscuro, 1977)

Beach with Androgynes

The girl came out in him and he in he girl
through the spontaneous skin, and it was powerful
to see four in the silhouette of those two
kissing on the sand; a viscous vice
or vice-versa; a scene
that went from the beach to the clouds.
happened later? who
entered whom? were there sheets
with her stain and was he
her prey?
Or tied to the deity
of pleasure are they laughing there,
whinnying just to be alive, in their fragrant

She kisses me greedily
Hoping to escape from death
And when I fall asleep she lodges in my spinal
Column, screaming for help,
Carrying me up to the sky, like a motherless condor
Boning up on death.

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Transtierro, 1979)

Dog On an Etruscan Vase

Look at the dog, bounded by the quadrupedal of his speed
and not in the discourse of his patheolithic barking
of a wolf leaping, come and take a look at him.
Orphic and translucent, four heartbeats in the air
as he enters sniffing around him, how persistent
as the funeral of the figure.

Paint him like that flying levitated with
ether & ultrasound so the register's intact
and the animal's character shines in equilibrium
as on this Etruscan vase which still holds
its breath, the wingbeat
of the buzzing

in the deft sketch, the dizzy
muzzle following the Imago
of some dead king, the two front paws
bleeding out of
orbit, almost
reaching him beyond the vase, running
ceaselessly millennium
after millennium among the luxurious
mortuary cloths and blue vestments with harps
and masks.

—Translated from the Spanish by John Oliver Simon

(from Matería de testamento, 1988)

English language translation copyright ©2008 by John Oliver Simon. Reprinted from From the Lightning: Selected Poems (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008). Reprinted by permission from the publisher.

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