Reviewed by Ed Pavlic
I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife.
—Empedocles of Acragas
And so it goes according to the pre-Socratic thought of Empedocles. The double plot: the elemental smelting and dissolution of water, air, earth and fire into what we do and don’t feel, can and can’t know; and the forces of conserving coherence (Love) and those of propulsive chaos (Strife) that animate the mix. In Empedocles’s thought, there’s a region beyond all of this, an infinite boundlessness where all elements and elemental patterns exist only as potential, everything mixed with everything else so evenly and chaotically that it’s beyond the forms of existence themselves. Reading Roberto Bolaño, one is ever in the mix between propulsion and conservation, back and forth and round and round, until we can almost see him at work in Mexico, in Spain, in France, amidst the galaxy (each star a pantheon) of literary personae that fired his work. We can sit with the formidable evidence of his effort to conserve the propulsive energies of Latin American literary talent that came of age around 1968 in Mexico City after the Latin American “Boom” of Neruda, Borges, Paz and others. The result is nobody’s wax museum. Instead, Roberto Bolaño’s labors have left us a living, elemental cosmos of Love and Strife that simultaneously built and destroyed his generation of artists.
At the beginning of the encyclopedic mid-section of Bolaño’s first magnum compendium (or at least the first one published in English) of interrelated personae, The Savage Detectives, one Perla Aviles recounts a quarrel about quarrels. Upon learning that her friend, a Chilean adolescent poet living in Mexico City, had had a fight with a local theater director about the respective merits of Nicanor Parra and Pablo Neruda, Aviles reports, “of course I could hardly believe that two people would fight about something so unimportant. Where I come from, he said, people fight about things like that all the time. Well, I said, in Mexico people kill each other for no good reason at all, but certainly not educated people. Oh, the ideas I had then about culture.” Aviles, a voracious reader, then doubles back to investigate the argument between the director and the young poet. She doesn’t go back alone, she takes a weapon: “I went to visit the director, armed with a little book by Empedocles.” After a few thousand pages of his prose being released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (The Savage Detectives, 2666) and New Directions (By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas), we can appreciate (if not quite fully fathom) the scale of Empedoclean play of propulsion and conservation in Bolaño’s imagination.
Having read most of the prose record in a kind of Bolaño fever over the summer, I wondered at first what The Romantic Dogs could add. I found that Bolaño’s poems hold the magnifying glass between the sun and his view of reality on the ground. In the prose (this may have to do with the flood of new work available in English), Bolaño ranges wide across countries and continents, conjuring dizzying arrays of voices and personae over hundreds of pages. In the poems, he holds the focal points in view on single pages. We watch the glass focus the light; the poems smoke. The effect of this stillness intensifies and clarifies our sense of the motion. In The Romantic Dogs, readers catch Bolaño’s process as if on a slow succession single slides for the microscope. In “The Frozen Detectives,” Bolaño’s poets (and poems) enact similar evidentiary deceleration, posing as a kind of metaphysical CSI team. The persona informs: “I dreamt of hideous crimes / and of careful guys / who were wary not to step in pools of blood / while taking in the crime scene / with a single glance. / I dreamt of lost detectives . . . / our generation, our perspectives, our models of Terror.” Bolaño’s detectives and perros romanticos refuse to leave the dream, the active zone of love and strife where things and people shift from becoming to unbecoming and back. They refuse the nightmare, the place (that’s no place) where things are (and so, aren’t) what they are. In “The Romantic Dogs,” he writes, “And the dream lived in the void of my spirit. // And sometimes I’d retreat inside myself / and visit the dream: a statue eternalized / in liquid thoughts // A drowning love. / A dream within another dream. / And the nightmare telling me: you’ll grow up. / You’ll leave behind the images . . . // I’m here, I said, with los perros romanticos / and here I’m going to stay.”
Bolaño’s prose visions are multitudinous, ebullient, and fantastic. We read through them as if Velocity is the cousin that sends, like she does in the poem “Rain,” messages to us from “Nature,” who “hides some of her methods / in Mystery, her stepbrother.” His poems are slower. If you’ve ever watched someone die waiting for a last breath, the breath slows, the pace crawls, the time between breaths (as if in small, rehearsal deaths) grows. There’s terror and peace in those spaces. The question is whose is whose and which is which? The poems in The Romantic Dogs expose a similar state of suspended ambiguity. I don’t know how old Bolaño was when these poems were written. It’d be great if they were dated. They’re great anyway. In “Self Portrait at Twenty Years,” he writes, “You either listen or you don’t, and I listened // 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 // brushing cheeks with death.” There’s bound to be some Duende in a dream deferred. A dream inferred. Infrared. The images are slow and strange, and they take shape in a contemporary world: “Right now you can cry and let your image dissolve / on the windshield of cars parked along the boardwalk. But you can’t disappear.” Grown-up stasis and the fantasies of transcendence that accompany it, alike, foreclosed. Nature’s stepbrother breathes his slow breaths. We watch. In “Atole,” Mario Santiago and Orlando Guillen, “Mexico’s lost poets,” appear “as if in a mural where they lived / velocity and haste did not exist.”
Visions intensified reveal the motion, the play of the infinite, inside things that sit still as time rolls up and down on its way. Permanence not only exists, it recedes. In “X-rays,” Bolaño dissects this angle of (inner) vision: “The X-rays tell us time / is expanding and thinning like the tail of a comet / inside the house . . . // If we look, however, with X-rays inside of the man / we’ll see bones and shadows: ghosts of fiestas / and landscapes in motion as if viewed from an airplane / in a tailspin . . . // and we’ll know that there’s no cure.” As in the Cante Jondo and the blues, there’s a kind of vital sadness in it all. I suppose Empedocles’s “infinite boundless” (non-)exists in its way beneath emotion, language and culture. A permanent receding, as in Empedocles’s thought or in Bolaño’s work, might make exhaust that the human brain converts into sadness. We crave it nonetheless. In Bolaño, an epic sadness is the place where all the basic intensities of experience go when they’re not busy fucking up our lives. The visceral realist poet/archivists flee part one of The Savage Detectives in their patron architect’s (his name is Font) old Chevy, the narrator watches the scene recede as Lupe puts the pedal to the metal and reports, “I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness in the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window.”
Through mind and dust and blood (even through death), the poems in The Romantic Dogs slow the vision down, and usher us up cheek to cheek with a permanent receding, according to the nature (and her stepbrother) of which even Empedocles can help rescue a prostitute and shoot off toward Sonora on a lark. These poems magnify the intricacies in a literary craft of considerable dimension. They fix upon a prose magician’s trickery slowed down and brought up close so we can focus on its hands as they move. Up close, we see they don’t. They don’t begin to move until they’re perfectly still. Stilled in images of motion and fluid. The poems in The Romantic Dogs carry a life toward us as we watch the permanently receding elements of its Will to Strife operate. As in “La Francesa,” they invoke “A love that wasn’t going to last long / But that by dessert would have become unforgettable.”