Andean Journeys: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Bolivian Poetry (2011) is one wonderful volume in a series of four anthologies on South American poetry put together by Ronald Haladyna, professor emeritus of Spanish and Latin American Culture at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. The other three books are Contemporary Uruguayan Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (2010), Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry (2011) and Volcanic Reflections: A Bilingual Anthology Of Contemporary Ecuadorian Poetry (2011).
I read the Bolivian version yesterday and loved it. The only thing that disturbed me was the use of Comic Sans on the cover! – but then that’s because the collection has been independently published (through Trafford).
Professor Haladyna writes that while Latin American narrative writers—Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño—have achieved worldwide acclaim and readership in the past few decades, the same has not been the case for Latin American poets, especially for those belonging to countries like Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Out of these, “the Plurinational State of Bolivia” is particularly marginalised. It is a stunningly beautiful landlocked country, and also the poorest in South America. Many of us know it for Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. But Bolivia usually makes it to international media only for its political, economic and social problems (see this 2014 interview of President Evo Morales on Al Jazeera), more often than not revolving around the production of coca, the nationalisation or privatisation of industries, the racial tensions between the indigenous majority and the more privileged and powerful white (pure European ancestry) and mestizo (mixed white and Amerindian ancestry) classes. The cultural/creative side of the country remains ignored and unknown.
Read a few samples:
URBAN ANIMAL by Jorge Campero (born 1953, Tarija, Bolivia):
Black tongues of high-speed highways / will take you to cities of indifference / famished that illusion paints on the façades / only painful guffaws / beehives with windows facing the sun like mouths / colored water and lights and publicity with aged faces that laugh / faces of loonies / dressed up in glitter and cheap jewelry / perfumed sadness / sacrificial stones; cities of false stones / pawn shops / fornicating capitals of juicy fruits almost human / with a soul of cash / bodies that break down or are for sale / reciters of words who hunt flies at the same time / sordid rooms and walls with anonymous graffiti of complaints / industrial rooms set up to select meat / “electrical power, mechanical power or a Eucharistic wafer on today’s menu” / armies of parked vehicles tune their horns / plastic flowers in garbage cans / eyes sprout tears from the water earth provided for its vigilance / for the nights in the cuadrant or the testate drum / you can hear the howling of distant servants / it’s on account of you / sad singers from remote towns become drowsy and sleep / on account of you.
RITUAL by Benjamin Chávez (born 1971, Santa Cruz, Bolivia):
Seeing photos of immense cities / totally unreal for me / you went on pointing / with the guidance of your index finger / the deep past of your luck. / All night long we reviewed your memories / of the seven seas and as many other lives / until your ship reaches land / at last? / in my port.
FROM YOUR BODY (Fragments) to Gabriel by Eduardo Mitre (born 1943, Oruro, Bolivia):
You’ve just been born / and I ready wish you’d grow up / so we can talk, / son, / child to child.
I move away and discover / your absence. / I write you a poem. / Your innocence / is unaware of it.
I plead with the gods: / that he grow up easily like grass / and strong like an oak. / Better yet, that he not grow up.
I watch your hands that grasp / a rag doll. / I see coins and blood / and I tremble on both sides. / There is a country, lonely, sad, / poor, magical, difficult, / almost impossible. / Wandering we are, / son, we’re from just over there.
Don’t let sorrows take away / your pleasure of eating. / Nor worse, let them convert / it to a hunger for power.
I imagine you at daybreak / (the gods are watchful)
LIKE FIRE For Jamie Choque by Pedro Shimose (born 1940, Riberalta, Bolivia):
We no longer feel shame going out on the street and jostling the world. / Here they are, blood and sweat—our blood and pain and our land—our land / (I look at what’s mine—what’s always been mine) / Now our hearts are burning like fire and our thoughts are flashes of lightning.
Like flames / our fathers were herded away to war. / Cannon fodder, they died / without knowing why / —-they simply served as a ladder— / our fathers / were buried / alive / in the mine; / they treated us like animals / —saying, “dumb Indian”, they scolded us / like ill-bred children— / we couldn’t even wear a coarse cotton shirt, / they wouldn’t let us enter cities, / —“filthy servants”—they sold us / and no one protested / we were meant to suffer in misery, / shoved around, / to suffer contempt, / that’s what we were there for… /
They took away our hand, / they stupefied us, / but we no longer feel fear / (never again will we return to feel it, I swear) / now we’ve learned to speak your language, sir / to tell you we are men—many men—and that our hearts / burn with the very same fire.
A few more memorable lines by others –
Eduardo Nogales Guzmán (born 1959, Oruro, Bolivia):
But infancy is the domain that inseminates punishment / And punishment in turn is the perpetuity of innocence
Juan Carlos Orihuela (born 1952, La Paz):
Bodies pass through the world exchanging gifts / inscribing one another like a mutual tattoo / forcing them to see each other in mirrors and / be known in the sights of beasts and birds […] Bodies are the center of remorse.
Blanca Wiethüchter (born 1947, La Paz; died 2016, Cochabamba):
We who are responsible for living / and have been born in the third world. / We who ask for justice / and live in South America. / We who die in Bolivia / unique and desolate. / We are that history that doesn’t get written and that walks about with its head cut off.
A student dies, shot in the back. / Spilled blood / spreads in the street / like a cry. / Who can write about innocence?
To learn more about Bolivian literature, check these pages on The Culture Trip and The Latino Author. Then of course, there’s Wikipedia.
More poetry on this blog: : Life in Suspension/La Vie Suspendue by Hélène Cardona, Beyond Elsewhere by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, Bestiary by Donika Kelly, The Mind and Favorite Bedtime Stories by John FitzGerald, and Look by Solmaz Sharif.
Featured: AA flight from MIA to LPB, cruising through the Andes en route to La Paz, Bolivia, Mt Illamani (6438m) on the right by User “CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
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