The Parra family has the rare distinction of producing two major artists in a single generation: Nicanor, impudent antipoet who died only last year, and Violeta, folklorist, singer-songwriter and visual artist, who ended her own life in 1967. I read Victor Herrero A.’s terrific biography of Violeta last year: she’s a fascinating figure, wholly dedicated to her mission as an artist in a way that often made her impossible to live with. The Parras were a modest family in a small town in Chile – their father a schoolteacher, their mother a seamstress – and Violeta had to fight for the space to do her work and the recognition she knew it deserved. She had to fight for her work collecting the folk music of Chile before it died out with the arrival of the radio and mass culture, because she didn’t have an academic background – Nicanor, the boy, got the education – and for the public’s attention as a performer. Often this made her a pain in the arse: she demanded total silence when she played, and once, on a ship to Europe, another passenger stole her guitar because she wouldn’t stop singing. Sometimes her fierce self-belief paid off – she talked her way into exhibiting her tapestries at the Louvre in Paris – and sometimes it didn’t, as when, against all advice, she opened a huge peña on the outskirts of Santiago, the failure of which was one of the factors in her suicide. The book’s an electrifying portrait of the single-minded strength Violeta needed to create herself as an artist as well as her art, particularly as a woman who was expected to run a household in addition to everything else she did. At one point she left a newborn baby, who subsequently died, in Chile to pursue an opportunity in Europe: that selfishness, that insistence on her identity as an artist above everything else, still feels radical and upsetting and brave.
Nicanor shared his sister’s outsider’s stance and her suspicion of elites, but his path in life was easier; he didn’t demand admission, as Violeta did, but mocked a world to which he belonged. That mockery’s there in the impassioned tribute he wrote to his sister after her death: it contrasts her energy and passion with the cultural gatekeepers who continually frustrated her, “a few sad public servants/Grey like the stones of the desert”. I love how Nicanor ties together all her different offices in life at the beginning (“Gardener…”) and end (“Cook…”) of the poem, when he begins to reckon with her absence: they register both as a celebration of her immersion in the concrete world and a burden that she eventually lay down. His reputation as an “antipoet” mocking the pomposity of art can obscure his great capacity for tenderness, especially when evoking the past, and that’s on full display here, especially in the final run of verses when he recalls the pattern on her apron and asks her for one last song. But mainly, the cascade of images, places and events from Chilean history evoke an artist so multifarious that “the nouns become scarce/to name you”: an artist who spent much of her creative life traversing Chile to record its folk culture, an artist who identified so strongly with her country that it sometimes edged into chauvinism (she could be boorish in her disinterest in neighbouring cultures), an artist who began making tapestries because she was laid up sick in bed and couldn’t bear to be idle, an artist who seemed “inexhaustible” until, suddenly, she wasn’t. My translation of the poem is below.
Sweet inhabitant of the green jungle
Eternal guest of April in bloom
Great enemy of the blackberry
Dancer of the clear water
Tree full of songbirds
You have gone all over the region
Unearthing pitchers of clay
And freeing captive birds
Between the branches.
Always worried about others
If not a nephew
then an aunt
When are you going to remember yourself
Your pain is an infinite circle
That does not begin or end
But you overcome everything
When it comes to dancing the cueca
No one escapes your guitar
Even the dead go out dancing
The cueca in waltz time.
Cueca of the Battle of Maipú
Cueca of the Sinking of the Angamos
Cueca of the Chillán Earthquake
Nor quail, captive or free
three times you
Earthly bird of paradise.
fresh water gull
All the adjectives become scarce
All the nouns become scarce
To name you.
You do everything a thousand marvels
Without the least effort
Like someone drinking a glass of wine.
But the secretaries don’t love you
And they close the door of your house to you
And they declare a war to the death on you
Because you don’t dress like a clown
Because you don’t buy or sell yourself
Because you speak the language of the land
Because you reveal them on the spot!
How are they going to love you
When they are a few sad public servants
Grey like the stones of the desert
Don’t you think?
In contrast you
Violeta of the Andes
Flower of the coastal ranges
You are an inexhaustible spring
Of human life.
Your heart opens when it wants
Your will closes when it wants
And your health sails when it wants
You only have to call them by name
To make the colours and shapes
Rise and walk like Lazarus
In body and soul.
No one can complain when you
Sing in a whisper or when you shout
As if they were slitting your throat
What the listener has to do
Is keep a religious silence
Because your song knows perfectly
Where to go.
It’s lightning that goes from your voice
To the four cardinal points
Ardent picker of black eyes
You are accused of this and that
I know you and I say who you are
Oh lamb disguised as a wolf!
I know you well
North and south of the tormented country
Valparaíso sunken further up
Sacristan of the cuyaca of Andacollo
Weaver with needle and bobbin
Old arranger of angelitos
The veterans of Seventynine
Cry when they hear you sigh
In the abyss of the dark night
Lamp to blood!
all the offices
All the afterglow of twilight
I don’t know what to say at this hour
My head goes around and around
As I had drunk hemlock
Where am I going to find another Violeta
Whether I travel fields and cities
Or stay sitting in the garden
Like an invalid.
To see you better I close my eyes
And I return to the happy days
Do you know what I am seeing?
Your apron printed with berries.
Your apron printed with berries
The year nineteen twenty-seven
But I don’t trust words
Why don’t you rise from the grave
In your guitar?
Sing me an unforgettable song
A song that never ends
A song, no more
Is what I ask.
What does it cost you tree woman in bloom
To rise in body and soul from the sepulchre
And make the stones explode with your voice
This is what I wanted to say to you
Keep weaving your wires
Your Araucanian ponchos
Your little jugs from Quinchamalí
Keep polishing day and night
Your toromiros of sacred wood
without useless tears
Or if you want with burning tears
And remember that you are
A lamb disguised as a wolf.