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2020 chilean poetry and COVID-19: dreams of freedom, dashed in confinement

May 12, 2020


by Benoît Santini, Professor in Latin American litterature at the University of Littoral Côte d’Opale.



Chile is a land of poets, and even in confinement (declared on March 18 by Sebastián Piñera's government) and in a pandemic, their voices can be heard, at times rebellious, at times tender, but always articulating demands and generosity.


"Chilean unity is the only way for us to defeat the coronavirus", San Miguel neighborhood, Santiago of Chile (source Wikicommons).
"Chilean unity is the only way for us to defeat the coronavirus", San Miguel neighborhood, Santiago of Chile (source Wikicommons).

In this context, the Chilean satirical newspaper The Clinic published ten interviews of Chilean poets with the title "Los versos del encierro" ("confinement verses") and added poems, some unpublished, of these significant authors, men and women, of different generations, who alluded to their quarantine: Claudio Bertoni (1946), Elvira Hernández (1951), Raúl Zurita (1950), Teresa Calderón (1955), Gladys González (1981), Elicura Chihuailaf (1952), Verónica Zondek (1953), Mauricio Redolés (1953), Soledad Fariña (1943) et Héctor Hernández Montecinos (1979).


Confined in Santiago, or yet in the Chilean provinces if not overseas, these ten authors convey their impressions with sincerity, such as Bertoni who touches on his fear and offers his thoughts in his "March 8, 2020 journal" on pain and death with aphorisms and micro-poems that are not devoid of humor:


Me siento absoluta y totalmente perdido:

Plataformas online:

Un insondable misterio para mí [1].


Indeed, the new distancing procedures sever humans from physical contact, a rather anxious situation for these poets who are so attached to the exchanges they have with their families, their students and their readers at recitals and book presentations. Certainly Teresa Calderón bemoans not being able to embrace those close to her and her students, just as Soledad Fariña who considers that "the hardest (is) the distance from loved ones, children, grandchildren, family, friends, workshop students", and who regrets the absence of looks and hugs because of this forced isolation, while Zurita, on her end, admits: "It would hurt to die in total isolation, without your loved one's hand slipping away from yours".


Though these poets express their intimate feelings, they haven't forgotten their ethical and political commitment after all. As a matter of fact, the confinement is stirring in them questions on today's Chilean society, as well as a desire to fight against injustices inherited from the Pinochet dictatorsip, a fight which the social uprising of October 2019 is a perfect example. For Elvira Hernández, "this physical distancing should be obvious for all human beings and it should not be confused with social distance, in a society as classiste and discriminatory as ours is".

The poet Zurita, National Litterature Prize (Source Wikicommons); The poet Elvira Hernandez (source Wikicommons)
The poet Zurita, National Litterature Prize (Source Wikicommons); The poet Elvira Hernandez (source Wikicommons)

As for Gladys González, she points out "the importance of reaching for the common good" capable of challenging "the aspirations and automatic conventions of neoliberalism". In fact, she uses the poem that illustrated her interview to revisit the police violence that happened during the social outburst of October 2019:


un muchacho

toma fotografías

de la muchedumbre


el momento exacto

en que son disparados


a sus ojos

su cara se pierde

entre la sangre [2].


As for Verónica Zondek, she condemns "the authorities who say we are at war against a powerful enemy again" - a term already used by Piñera to designate the protestors at the social uprising at the end of 2019 - while Mauricio Redolés, singer and poet, believes that "we are in the hands of fools. This week a nurse died, and the government spends millions for ministers to travel accross Chile when they could buy medical equipment, such as masks, with this money". For it is altruism that these poets are defending, in a Chilean society considered selfish: for Zurita "confining ourselves is a luxury only a few can afford". How can we help? How can we save people? That's the only question that counts". Héctor Hernández is also filled with questions, referencing man's responsability during this health crisis: "the only thing that is left for us is precisely our capacity to ask, to try to understand when everything went to shit [todo se fue a la mierda], to try to understand where our responsability lies, to try to understand if there is a solution to this".


Trauma linked to the pandemic emerges at the heart of the submitted poems. Soledad Fariña writes, in lyrical musings:


¿Qué es un virus? 


al ver la hermosa flor roja –o rosada–

que se despliega ante mi ojo

Soy excreta, me  responde la misma flor


¿De qué?

¿De quiénes?

No hay respuesta. Solo barbijos, mascarillas, guantes

¿Abrazos? (no)

Caricias? (no)

¿Piel contra piel? (Jamás!)

¿Tocarse con los labios?  (no)  ¿Siquiera levemente? (no!) [3].


So, to alleviate separation anxiety and doubts brought on by the health crisis situation, momentums of life and hope sometimes surface in the verses of these authors, for example Verónica Zondek whose lyrical voice sings of a world in renewal: "El mundo parece estar vacío. / El mundo crece, florece, se multiplica mientras nosotros dormimos" [4]. Facing a distressing period, Elicura Chihuailaf, in a lyrical speech full of Mapuche beliefs, extols happiness: "La felicidad no es la apariencia / de la luz sino su centro circular / que es el arcoiris latiendo en la hondura / de la Tierra, me dijeron" [5], just as Héctor Hernández does through memories: "Las dos últimas veces que lloré de felicidad / fueron en México City y Barcelona / y es probable que hayan sido las únicas" [6].


And so at the end of the day, it's Zurita, National Litterature Prize in 2000, who has the most beautiful way of drawing us out of our confinement by making us enter into vast bright places: "se abre el abismo sin fondo y luego, tendida un kilómetro y medio más allá, como una gigantesca cortina final, las cataratas del Pacífico destellan precipitándose" [7].


In the end, couldn't poetry be the best way to escape in these days of confinement?

[1] "I feel absolutely and totally lost / on-line plateforms / an unfathomable mystery for me". (in footnotes, English translations of all quoted verses).   

[2] "A boy / takes photographs / of the crowd / he captures / the exact moment / when are shot / projectiles / in his eyes / his face gets lost / in the blood".

[3] "What is a virus? I ask / while seeing the beautiful red flower - or pink - / unfolding before my eyes / I am excretion, that same flower tells me / tiny / Of what? / Of whom? / No answer. Only scarfs, masks, gloves / Embrace? (no) / Caress (no) / Skin against skin? (Never!) / Touch each other with our lips? (no) / Just a bit? (no!)".

[4] "The world seems empty. / The world grows, flowers, multiplies while we sleep".

[5] "Happiness is not the appearance / of light but its circular center / which is the rainbow beating in the depth / of the Earth / they told me'.

[6] "The last two times I cried in happiness / was in Mexico and Barcelona / and it's probably the only time". 

[7]  "The bottomless abyss opens and then, stretched a mile and a half beyond, like a gigantic final curtain, the sparkling Pacific Falls rush".

Benoît Santini is a Professor in Latin American litterature at the University of the Littoral Côte d’Opale. He is a member of the History, Languages, Litterature, Intercultural laboratory (UR H.L.L.I. 4030). A specialist in Chilean poetry, his research is on Gabriela Mistral, Raúl Zurita, young Chilean poets of today, and more generally Latin American litterature. Author of numerous articles, he also published Raúl Zurita. Obra poética (1979-1994), Poitiers/Argentina, Archivos/Alción Editores, n° 67, 2017, as well as translations done jointly with Laëtitia Boussard: Gabriela Mistral. De désolation en tendresse (anthology of poetry and prose) with Caractères in 2018 and Raúl Zurita's Antéparadis with Classiques Garnier in 2018.