By Hwaa Irfan
Artists are people who make tangible the intangible: put form on our emotions when we have lost touch with those emotions, and remind the wings of our souls when they have forgotten how to fly. If the artists are true to their art and their art has been true to Creation; in doing so, their art will live on.
In the past 200 years, so many – too many of our lives have been battered into shape – shapes that are far from artistic, shapes that are disposable. One may only dream when young of doing things with one’s life that is far more creative than the life that has been led. It has become so commonplace that the idea of being anything “other”, of living a life with greater meaning or purpose we dare not let enter our minds out of fear that it will take us to un-navigated waters, at least none traveled within the confines of our comfort zones. That fear is born out of a fear of our souls if revealed might be rejected, as it once was before, but by accepting that relationship with life, we very much reject our own souls.
When one looks at the photo of the man above what comes to mind? A man who has toiled all his life… and for what? A poor man? A man who has never lived or does one feel sorry for him? OR “I don’t wanna end up like that!”
As a child that man saw life as much as any of us, through the lens of an innocent heart, the eyes of a child that ‘sees’, the mind of a child with an active imagination. He was born the 7th son in the port Lebu, Chile, and as villages go they hold a lot more adventure for a growing boy than that of the city. The defining moment of what he was to become was not the push of a parent, or the school curriculum, but a sign from nature – a flash of lightening quite literally, and with the onomatopoeic vivre and rhythmic dance of the Spanish language with life one of his brothers gave breath to the lightening with the noun ‘RE – LÁM – PA – GO’. Can one imagine, embodied in the lightening and that one Spanish word a life was about to take the first step on a journey of no return until he died in April 2011. The boy enthralled by the lightening and the word ‘RE – LÁM – PA – GO’ that charged from his brother’s lungs gave birth to the boy who was to become in the land of the poets, Chile’s greatest living poet.
Oral literature in Chile was originally a medium of war oratory of the indigenous Mapuche Indians, as well as for funerals and religious rites. With a four century history, colonialism introduced a new breed of poetry in the land that is known as the Land of the Poets.
The old man in the photo – the life referred to is Gonzalo Rojas who died aged 93. After the above incident Rojas reported to have said:
“Since then, I have lived in the zumbido, the buzzing of words.”
I never knew of his life, until his death – the 7th son of a coal-miner who lived a life away from being shaped and pummelled into a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc, etc, etc. He lived on to become an editor for Antarctica magazine in Santiago, and Professor in Valparaiso. At university Rojas (meaning red) joined a group of surrealists, and published his first book of poetry in 1948. Rojas was forced to leave his beloved Chile due to the military coup of the dictator Pinochet in 1973, where Rojas lost his diplomatic rank, and was prevented from working as any university in Chile. His life line was an offer from the Eastern Germany University Rostck. It was not until 1979 that Rojas was able to return with the help of a Guggeheim scholarship. However, Rojas was still not permitted to work, thus settled 400 kilometres away to the south in Chillan.
This was not to prevent his life from becoming more interesting: he taught in German, Mexican, Spanish, Venezuelan, and U.S. universities. His works were re-published in English, German, French, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Romanian, Swedish, Chinese, Turkish and Greek.
Rojas won the prestigious Latin American Prize ‘Poesía’ and the highest national award for literature in his home-country Chile in 1992. In 2003 Rojas won the top prize for literature in Spanish the Cervantes Prize. Rojas had produced volumes of poetry, and when he looked back on what was happening in Chile, he told avid lover of Rojas’ works John Simon:
“These days in Chile,” he tells me, “there are a lot of jóvenes who are lazy, they haven’t read enough, they fall into an easy colloquialism, they don’t know how to work the word. You have to work to develop the ear. And the eye. The eye becomes the ear and the ear becomes the eye. They vibrate transparent. You work not with the five senses but with the twenty senses of the poet, the forty senses.”
Simon describes Rojas as someone whose:
“… mind is a rich symphony that turns on a dime, in “simultaneous explosion, instantaneous spin.” Touch him and he’s already gone. Catch up to him and he’s already on to what’s about to happen. “I’m just passing through here among the stars.”
Aged 90, Rojas noted he was not going to die young still living in Chillan in a cabin where he mourns the death of his beloved wife Hilda as he gazed upon the wooden table she had made. Referring to his wife as “A ballerina” who died and showed little suffering from lung cancer, his love of woman is evident in his work, but not the love and loyality he had for the women in his life – his mother and wife. This can only be sketched and probably sketched more beautifully in his beloved Spanish.
And no more tears; this transparent woman,
who today is sealed away,
this woman who now is walled
in a niche grave
like a madwoman chained
to a cruel bedstead in an airless room
with neither boat nor boatman, among faceless strangers,
this woman who, alone, is
who held us all in the heaven
of her body.
be her womb.
And nothing nothing else; that she bore me and made me
a man with her seventh birth
her figure of fire
and of ivory
in the trials of poverty and sadness
and she knew
how to hear through the silence of my childhood the sign
be the fruit of her womb.
Let others go instead of me
I can’t go now to put
the red carnations there
the carnations of the Rojases ‚— mine and yours ‚—
on the painful thirteenth day of your martyrdom
those family members who are born at dawn
and who are reborn ‚— let them go to that wall for us for Rodrigo
for Tomás for young Gonzalo for Alonso; let them go
or not as they wish
or let them leave you in the dark
alone with the ashes
of your beauty
which are your resurrection Celia
daughter and granddaughter of Pizarros
of late Pizarros Mother;
and may you come with us
into exile dwelling as always in grace
and mutual delight.
be thy name.
The literal translation of this poem was made by Tom Boll
The final translated version of the poem is by The Poetry Translation Workshop
“Chile Awards Gabriela Mistral Prize to Poet Gonzalo Rojas” http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=349183&CategoryId=13003&usg=AFQjCNGFNnAlS51bo0rY8XYCQilpJmXeDQ
“Chilean Poet Gonzalo Rojas Dies at Age 93.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13187777
“Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas dead at 93.” http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Lifestyle/Story/STIStory_661048.html
“Gonzalo Rojas”. http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poets/Gonzalo_Rojas
Simon, J.O. “Translation: Gonzalo Rojas.” http://johnoliversimon.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/translation-gonzalo-rojas/