The title is a dead
give-away I know, but I didn't realise how important the word 'Romantic'
would come to be in the reading of this collection, or my understanding of
it, but the more and more I read it, the more I found myself describing it as
Romantic, or post-Romantic, or whatever new name we're supposed to give this
kind of work these days. Beat seemed to obvious, and I get funny about this,
but then I could attach all manner of names to these poems; 'New
Confessionalism' is something else I jotted down in the margins, but now I'm
starting to think that adding these labels is somewhat defeatist and missing
the point of this collection entirely. However, bear these terms in mind,
because I will no doubt use them in the writing of this review, and you can
even play a game with yourself whereby you take a drink (or a pull on an
opium pipe, perhaps) every time I use the word Romantic to describe this
So, the first thing I have to mention about this book is its intrinsic
Romantic themes. There's a certain pretentiousness to the poems, but it is a
pretentiousness that is aware of itself and therefore acceptable, and I couldn't
help but feel that Bolano's poetry has all the swagger of a Spanish,
beat-generation Byron or Shelley, exploring the constant themes of sex and
death in graphic detail as he does. As a rebours as poets endeavour to
be, it is impossible to ignore the fact
that sex and death are the two constant themes in life, and for poets,
poetry is the third. There is poetry in sex, there is poetry in death, and
Bolano is unapologetic about exploring any of the three constants in detail.
The poems are free-flowing and prosaic, and are often punctuated by the
fiercely academic. It's hard to know why, at first, but the more I go into
Bolano's writing the more I see that - whether this is the reason or not - this only serves to
highlight the coarseness of the writing further, and seems to varnish
pleasantly a collection of poems that are so concise and yet so evocative
that they feel warm and sticky even to read. For example, in 'Fragments':
detective . . . Foreign cities
The Majorcan boys committed suicide
balcony at four in the morning
leaned out upon hearing the first shot
Apollo Venus Hercules . . .
The Greek imagery used is academic without being overtly pretentious, and often
Bolano intersperses these academic references with his depictions of sex and
death, so that the effect of one seems to double in protest of the other. So
sure, it's a little
pretentious but who ever said that was a bad thing?
The language, as you can see, is simple, and makes no apologies for itself,
however it is subtle and carries itself poetically and elegantly. For
example, in 'The Nurses':
A trail of
nurses start heading home. Protected
sunglasses I watch them come and go.
protected by the sunset.
A trail of
nurses and a trail of scorpions.
Come and go.
Bolano uses half-rhymes and repetition, and the vaguest sense of meter, which
all hold the book together with a definite certainty; these are the devices Bolano
uses with which to pin his ethereal poetry indelibly onto the page.
As the collection continues, it seems to sedate the reader into an unfamiliar
sense of jamais-vu
as he explores themes of transience and instability, and the world he lulls
us into seems like a slightly altered version of the one we already know.
Whilst discussing intimate encounters with teenage prostitutes, he's talking
about noises outside, he's talking about books he's read. Everything is
fragmented and as a result, everything seems quite hallucinogenic, and put me
in mind of fellow Beatnik Brion Gysin's 'The Process' with its
stream-of-consciousness, hyperreal, solipsistic tone.
Followers of Bolano's prose will not be disappointed by his verse which
glimmers and is grimy at the same time. He is audacious and Romantic with his
treatment of reality, reminding us all that life is brilliant and unkind but
that this is all part of a necessary process. This collection didn't so much
flow as it unfolded; as it the themes unfurled, a new light was shed, but all
leading to a series of frustrated and unfinished epiphanies... but then, what
were you expecting? Something romantic (with a lowercase 'r')?
© Sian Rathore 2011