Selective Focus: A Poem by Roberto Bolaño



I set off, I took up the march and never knew
where it might take me. I went full of fear,
my stomach dropped, my head was buzzing:
I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
I don’t know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
to leave so soon, but at the same time
I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
You either listen or you don’t, and I listened
and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
born on the air and in the sea.
A sword and shield. And then,
despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
against death’s cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.

from The Romantic Dogs, translated ably by Laura Healy.


December 8th, 2008

Borges, Cortázar, Bolaño. With the recent publication of Bolaño’s novels in English, the Anglo-reading critics now generally concur with their Hispanic colleagues: Bolaño, who died in 2003 in Catalonia, is the greatest novelist of his foreshortened generation, supplementing the imaginative portfolio of Borges (versus the magical realism of García Márquez). The fourth of his nine novels and novellas but the first to be published, The Savage Detectives appeared in 1998. He wrote almost all of his prose fiction, including many short stories, in the final decade of his life.

Born in 1953 in Chile, Bolaño mainly wrote poetry for twenty-five years while living in Mexico and Spain. Launching a poetry movement in the early 1970s called Infrarealism, Bolaño at the age of twenty-three wrote an excoriating manifesto with a Jacobin prediction: “The bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois live from party to party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Only regular funerals. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to have a big party. Memory and guillotines.” Natasha Wimmer, who translated The Savage Detectives, maintains that “in the last years of his life, when he published his novel The Savage Detectives, he achieved the radical break that his manifesto promised.”



from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs


Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

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