TESTIMONY OF CIRCUMSTANCES BY RODRIGO LIRA, TRANSLATED BY THOMAS ROTHE AND RODRIGO OLAVARRÍA
During his lifetime, Chilean-poet Rodrigo Lira never saw the cult-following that his poetry would achieve, and still, in much of North America and for most English readers, he remains an unknown. Translators Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, and Cardboard House Press, have righted this with the release of Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances. In this bilingual edition, which closely follows Lira’s posthumous Proyecto de obras completas, but with notable additions—one from which it takes its title—Rothe and Olavarría have reformed his poems in English with attention and care that captures the frenetic energy of Lira’s work. Their opening translator’s note offers key historical and biographical contexts and illuminates their perspicacious attention to, and labor over Lira’s poetry.
There’s nothing simple about Rodrigo Lira’s multilayered and intertextual lyric-poetry. His long stretching poems slip in various other languages; obscure references; and use playful, inventive word-play—not to mention a catalogue of footnotes and meta-poetic turns. Apart from the richness of his stylistic verse, his poetry communicates both a personal and a social pain, paralleled by loneliness. The first poem, “Grecia 907, 1975,” even begins with his speaker’s long hypothetical scream, in response to bureaucracy, etc. “Any moment now / my patience will snap and I’ll scream” and it is a scream so powerful that it both destroys and amasses with other voices: “the effects of my scream will multiply once all / the kooks start screaming and I’ll have accomplices . . .” Lira manifests a cold frustration for formal society and the government, and then a pride for the people of Chile too, particularly for the youth: “let us lift / up / our / hearts, because / —although this era isn’t giving birth to even half of one, / school girls keep drawing them / on their knapsacks / and now that practically no one tags / bathroom walls, / in Santiago de Chile, at least, / Young people / write.”
Lira may have written in the 70s, in response to the oppressive climate of his own government, but hold his poetry up and it is an unnerving lens for the present day, America and elsewhere. We should all take up the pen, like Lira, write against the suffocation of the factory, but first, turn to Testimony of Circumstances, enter into conversations with Lira and beat back our solitary sub-lives, choose to hear, more than survive.
—Review by Madeline Vardell