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Local author and poet Dave Oliphant translates Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra

Reviewed by Michael Agresta, Fri., March 6, 2009

New in Print

After-Dinner Declarations

by Nicanor Parra (translated by Dave Oliphant)
Host Publications, 513 pp., $25

There's a famous joke in Chile: At an awards banquet or celebration of some sort, an honoree is called up to the podium. He comes to the microphone astonished, mutters thanks, apologizes for not coming prepared, because he never could have expected it – then he pulls a sheaf of papers from his pockets and commences to read a lengthy speech.

"Aunque No Vengo Preparrado" ("Though I Haven't Come Preparred"), a riff on this joke, is the punnish title of one of five verse speeches by Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra collected in this first English translation. Parra, a perennial Nobel short-lister, has created a vital and challenging art form out of the sort of venerable ramblings we associate with literary celebrity funerals and lifetime achievement award acceptance speeches. The enterprise is a fitting closure for an iconoclastic career. Parra's "anti-poetry" has often been understood as a generational challenge to his countryman Pablo Neruda's ornamental verse, and Parra advocates passionately and radically on behalf of ecological values that would return the human race to a semblance of harmony with nature. References to peers and predecessors in literature, as well as appeals to ecological and political sanity, flow through the speeches in this volume, often mixing. The result is a sort of Irish wake for Parra's own career, for the world he sees headed toward catastrophe, and for the writers and books he has loved best. Accepting the prestigious Juan Rulfo Prize in Mexico, he writes, "I appreciate the narco-dollars/I have sure been needing them/But my great trophy is Pedro Paramo/I don't know what to say/At 77 years of age/I have seen the light/ More than the light I have seen the darkness."

This beautiful bilingual edition shows the many challenges presented to Austin-based translator Dave Oliphant in rendering Parra's puns, shorthand, and typographic symbols into English. Oliphant tends – I think rightly – toward preserving the oratorical accuracy of the poem-speeches when poor cognates force tough decisions on the page. Fortunately, Parra's anti-poetic Spanish is straightforward enough that intermediate readers will be able to use the originals as a reference.


Translator Dave Oliphant will read from After-Dinner Declarations on March 11 at 7pm at 12th Street Books (827 W. 12th).

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