The Dictators

An odor stayed on in the canefields;
Carrion, blood, and a nausea
Of harrowing petals.
Between coconut palms lay the graves, in their stilled
Strangulation, their festering surfeit of bones.
A finical satrap conversed
With wineglasses, collars, and piping.
In the palace, all flashed like a clockdial.
The gloved laugh redoubled, a moment
Spanning the passageways, meeting
The newly-killed voices and the buried blue mouths. Out of sight,
Lament was perpetual, and fell, like the plant and its pollen,
Forcing a lightless increase in the blinded, big leaves.
And bludgeon by bludgeon on the terrible waters,
Scale over scale in the bog,
The snout filled with silence and slime
And vendetta was born.

— Pablo Neruda

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a true cosmopolitan and traveled the world as poet-diplomat for his country. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he used his poetry to support the leftist faction and to document the murder of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s army. He continued to lean left after his return to Chile and joined the Communist Party of Chile in 1945. He was an ardent supporter of Stalin and Castro, and was forced to flee Chile in 1948 because of the government’s crackdown on communism. He was allowed to return to Chile in 1952. A support of the socialist president Salvador Allende, Neruda was considering leaving Chile after the dictator Pinochet seized power in September 1973, but he died just a few days after the coup.

[Research note: Pablo Neruda, “The Dictators,” Poetry (January 1952), p. 207; Rita Guibert, “Pablo Neruda, The Art of Poetry No. 14,” Paris Review 51 (Spring 1971); Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, “Pablo Neruda’s importance was as much political as poetic,” Guardian (April 10, 2013)]

Modern Times

These are calamitous times we’re living through
You can’t speak without committing a contradiction
Or keep quiet without complicity with the Pentagon.
Everyone knows there’s no alternative possible
All roads lead to Cuba
But the air is dirty
Breathing is a fertile act.
The enemy says
The country is to blame
As if countries were men.
Accursed clouds circle accursed volcanoes
Accursed embarkations launch accursed expeditions
Accursed trees crumble on accursed birds:
It was all polluted to begin with.

— Nicanor Parra
(Trans. by Miller Williams)

Nicanor Parra at age 100.Image: Gobierno de Chile / CC BY-SA 2.0

Nicanor Parra at age 100.
Image: Gobierno de Chile / CC BY-SA 2.0

Originally trained as a physicist, “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra refused to flee Chile during the Pinochet regime, voicing his dissent from inside the nation instead. Perhaps because he was never “disappeared,” he — like other poets who remained in Chile — has been accused of not opposing Pinochet with enough vigor.

[Research note: Leila Guerriero, “Our Twilight Lands,” Paris Review (March 26, 2012)]

She Disappeared

Brother, sister, you who survived the horror
of the stadium, Tres Alamos or Ritoque,
Tejas Verdes or Chaigun
have you seen my daughter, my brother,
my father, my beloved husband,
my daughter, my sweet daughter.

Wasn’t your hand chained to hers—
you must have heard her call me in her pain
when the lash fell on her heart
when the executioner stained her innocence.
Don’t you remember her?
I will describe her for you:
She was more beautiful than the sun and the star
and gave out hope with full hands.
Her eyes flashed like sparks when she dreamed of her country
without flags, the happiness of its people
no longer in chains.
She said goodbye one afternoon (what an afternoon it was)
Her smile bleeding, and with a sweet kiss
“See you soon, querida madres”
Since then, pain is my companion.
Cradling my hope I walk the roadside
with this question on my lips and in my conscience
killing me with blows, day after day.

— Sonia
(Trans. by Aurora Levins Morales)

Sonia is the pseudonym of a political prisoner held in Santiago Prison during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Under Pinochet, more than 40,000 people imprisoned, an estimated 28,000 tortured, and at least 3,000 executed or “disappeared.”

To Celia, A Disappeared Comrade

The roses will bloom once again in Europe
while back there, far away, they have stopped time
decreeing hunger
decreeing fear
decreeing a state of death.
The aromos bloomed
. . . and no one saw them.

— Sonia
(Trans. by Aurora Levins Morales)

“Sonia” is the pseudonym of a political prisoner held in Santiago Prison during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Under Pinochet, more than 40,000 people imprisoned, an estimated 28,000 tortured, and at least 3,000 executed or “disappeared.”