Friday, February 05, 2010


Roberto Bolaño often is characterized as a poet who wrote novels, no doubt because poets & poetry figure importantly in his books. The Romantic Dogs, however, suggests something different, that Bolaño is a novelist who began as a poet, not unlike Michael Ondaatje, or Paul Auster, or (to look not to the novel but to music) the way Patti Smith started as a poet, or Laurie Anderson as a short story writer. The Romantic Dogs is an important book because it’s a book by Bolaño, the book in fact on which the myth of Bolaño-the-poet must be mounted, not because it’s an important or earth-shattering book of poems.

If it is not an especially good book of poetry, however, it is a book of some very good poems. The difference lies in the fact that this is a grab-bag of works that show few signs of ever having designed to fit together into a single manuscript and that, without the original Spanish facing the English versions by Laura Healey, would have been not much larger than a chapbook. Not a lot of poetry to show for a life’s work, especially alongside such mountains of fictive prose as 2666.

The pose of Bolaño-the-poet may well be more important – and certainly more powerful – than the fact of the poems themselves, but what might be most useful here is to note the whole notion of Bolaño posing. The unifying – indeed distinguishing – element of these poems, written in a post-Beat free verse that might be closest in English to Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Ray Bremser, is the consistency of the pose: the intellectual as tough guy but one who is, at all moments, hard as nails & deeply sentimental. Think of upper limit Jean-Paul Belmondo in the films of Godard, lower limit Charles Bukowski (not as Mickey Rourke so much as Johnny Depp or, had he lived, Heath Ledger). Imagine Kerouac mixed with Camus.

This pose, which you can find in the novels as well, has its attractions. Just ask any gal or guy who ever has fallen for a bad boy, one they knew secretly had read everything & cared about what he read. Think, if you can, James Dean crossed with Eliot Weinberger. Or the figure Dylan wants you to buy, especially in the Village chapters of Chronicles. Or the one that flickers throughout I’m Not There. Perhaps when they get around to making a film about Bolaño’s life, the lead won’t be played by Gael García Bernal after all, but by Cate Blanchett.

One can see instantly in these poems both why Bolaño has become such a phenomenon since his death in 2003 & why also there has been a growing backlash against the work in the past year or so. He’s a very effective advocate for his conception of the poet as outsider and as a critical intelligence. It’s visible even in the poems where Bolaño doesn’t appear as a figure at all. Consider for example how the following poem both does and doesn’t sound just like Jack Spicer:


Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balat
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

That poem alone is worth the price of this book. And it’s not the best poem here. It is, like so much of Spicer, a poem about poetry, in which poetry itself is embodied in the figure of the diver, not heroically, going deeper for the truth, but at once a figure that is both tragic & comic, sinking like lead but covered in feathers. The feathers no doubt invoke Icarus (hence feathers / of will), which makes the image of the diver instantly ironic, an irony that is matched by the pairing of Loch Ness with the more obscure “Hungarian sea” that the Roman’s once named “shallow lake.” Picking a lake that will not be recognized by Spanish readers, at least in Bolaño’s native Latin America, is a deft, almost typical touch, precisely how Bolaño likes to show off his learning & breadth of experience.

It is not the poet here who is being equated with Icarus, but poetry itself. It is poetry that is dead / in the eyes of God. Whatever bravery poetry entails clearly is not rewarded, making it a fool’s errand. One wonder’s just how well Bolaño might have known Spicer’s work – those short lines, and especially the pregnant one-word line, are virtually signatures of the San Francisco poet who died young from a different kind of drowning than the one posed by Bolaño here:

un buzo
envuelto en las plumas
de la voluntad

Spicer’s death at 40 is tragic because it was unnecessary. There’s no indication here when “Resurrection” was written, but it’s just the third poem in this book whose work is said to have spanned 20 years. Bolaño always wrote like somebody conscious that he himself would die young, tho there is no credible evidence that his death at 50 from liver failure could be explained by the sort of excessive living that felled Spicer. Rather the tone one gets here of doom is closer to his fascination with the fictional archetype of the detective, again the tough guy as researcher.

None of which, I should note, explains that plaintive title “Resurrection.” Is that what a poem is, its relation to poetry itself? At the least, this is what Bolaño seems to be suggesting, the deeply sentimental side that softens his stance. But if you read the title cynically, as ironic, you serve only to confirm the poem’s point. All of which makes Bolaño a fascinating package of contradictions, whose success – especially in English – seems as much a consequence of his being safely gone as it does the idea that a post-avant writer, especially a neo-Beat, might have been this good.



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