I Write about Animals to Forget My Body
Eduardo Chirinos passed away five years ago, on February 17, 2016, and I wrote this note. LALT has picked it up now (February 2021), five years from his passing, as an homage to the memory of one of the most important Latin American poets of recent decades. He was ahead of his time.
I see the poet Eduardo Chirinos sitting in front of his computer monitor. It’s summer; a fresh breeze rolls in through the window, rustling the curtain. The poet is writing. It’s hot in Missoula, so his shirt is unbuttoned. His blue eyes are glued to the screen with U2, The Crash, Bach, or Ungarische Rhapsodie N°2 playing in the background. The music is on the highest volume setting and it fills the entire house. His studio is an oven at this time of year. Jannine, his wife and companion, prepares her lesson plans for her classes at the University of Montana. A deer absentmindedly sniffs at the kitchen door. The poet is deafened, or rather saturated by the music. I’m not sure if he’s working on “La arañita fastuosa” or “La guarida de los escarabajos” or “Los Mapuches de Johson Park.” He erases, corrects, writes again; the heat is hellish, his fingers move over the keyboard as though he were directing Led Zeppelin and Mozart. He writes and smiles, his poem is rhythmical. A line of sweat begins to slide down his bearish chest, but he isn’t thinking about bears. His mind is on other animals: cats, monkeys; above all, whales. He likes whales more than crocodiles. He writes, forgetting the music, and he keeps typing, an indefatigable poet. He looks at his work, reads it out loud, and his voice mingles with Bono’s; it’s perfect. He believes that he’s finished. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he looks to his wife, and together they look at the deer that’s walked into the kitchen.
This is the vision that I have of Eduardo. The news of his death left me unsure of what to do or where to go. Among the thousands of images and memories, I’m pulled back to 1992, on my first visit to Lima, a foundational journey for my relationship with poetry. I returned from that trip full of life, dreams, and books. I spent almost the entire next year joyfully reading and loving Peruvian literature. Among the marvels that I brought back with me from Lima was El libro de los encuentros (1988); according to its cover its author had won important national prizes like the Primer Premio de Poesía Copé in 1984. He had also published books: Cuadernos de Horacio Morell (1981), Crónicas de un ocioso (1983), Archivos de huellas digitales (1985), and Rituales del conocimiento y del sueño (1987). I took these references and dove into their pages, desiring to discover what one of my strict Peruvian contemporaries was writing. El libro de los encuentros is a step back into the steps of childhood, so much so that its first poem is called “Infancia vuelta a visitar (Corrales, Tumbes, 1965).” I read the whole book in fascination: its tone, the allusions, the word craft, and the prolific bibliography placed me before one of my most important partners in the Hispanic American world. Years later, in 1994 or 1995, we met in Bogotá. I don’t remember who introduced us, but his demeanor, blonde hair and beard, and blue eyes grabbed my attention. On top of that, he was a professor. It all made me blurt out something along the lines of, “you aren’t like the average Peruvian!” He reproached me with “No, pero soy como el burro peruano de Vallejo” [“No, but I am like the Peruvian burro from Vallejo,”] and we both laughed. From then on, we shared poetry and his vicissitudes. In that meeting there were readings, food, wine, and talk. I remember walking up la Séptima in Bogotá with a group of poets. The two of us had walked ahead talking. I walked to his right along the edge of the sidewalk. After a few blocks, he switched from my left to my right and told me “Soy sordo de este oído y no te escucho” [“I’m deaf on that side and I can’t hear you.”]. That was how I learned why, when he was writing, he would put the music on full volume. As we walked, he also told me how much he loved Ecuador because his father was a soldier who had been sent to Tumbes (which sits on the Ecuadorian border) in the 60s and 70s. As a boy he liked to invade Guayaquil. He had a sharp wit; whenever we spoke, we laughed. In that moment, another poet, Boccanera came up behind us and said: “Nunca había visto a un ecuatoriano y a un peruano conversar tan a gusto.” [“I’ve never seen an Ecuadorian and a Peruvian enjoy a conversation so much.”] “Es que los dos somos nietos de Olmedo” [“Well, that’s because we’re both Olmedo’s grandsons,”] Chirinos quipped back. This was because I had told him earlier that I was surprised to find the work of José Joaquín Olmedo, the great poet of our independence, tucked into an anthology of Peruvian poetry.
We saw each other again in several cities: Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santiago, Granada, Madrid; this last meeting was special. In 2010, La Casa de América organized a reading by the winning of the Premio Casa de América de Poesía Americana. Chirinos won it in 2001 in the first round with his Breve historia de la música, a prodigious book in which one not only appreciates his passion for music, but also his erudition on the topic. In it, he makes use of research or readings that date back centuries; better yet, he brings them into the present with a subtlety not lacking in irony. We participated in that reading along with Oscar Hahn, Juan Manuel Roca, Marco Antonio Campos, and Jorge Boccanera, all of whom had also won the prize. That was where I realized that Eduardo Chirinos already belonged to the litter of Latin American poets that were placing the poetry from that part of the world in an important seat of honor at the table of the Spanish language.
After that memorable night, we participated in the VII Festival Internacional de Poesía Ciudad de Granada, España. We coincided with the splendid winner of that year’s Nobel prize, Herta Muller, and the poet Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel in 1992. We laughed, wondering who was going to come to listen to a Peruvian and an Ecuadorian, but Eduardo was not just a great reader of poetry; he captivated the audience with references and jokes about his poems that delighted a tough poetry-reading public. For example, I listened to him recite his poem, “El equilibrista de Bayard Street.” He wrote it because one morning, he realized that someone had hung a pair of tennis shoes over the power line and he was convinced that one of his neighbors was a tightrope walker. The story of that poem from Eduardo’s mouth was incredibly entertaining. There, in Granada, we also came to the conscious realization that we had never seen one another in the cities where we were born. He said to me, we’re always seeing each other elsewhere, when are we going to get to Quito or Lima? The chance to meet in one of our cities came in 2013. But before then, we continued to occasionally communicate over the internet. In one of those emails he told my family and I that some medical tests in Lima had detected stomach cancer and that he was awaiting more tests to begin his treatment. That was near the end of 2011, and the news came was puzzling. How could such a cheerful, healthy person get cancer? He never drank too much wine nor ate too much. His was not the bohemian lifestyle typical of poets. He never had more than a glass of wine with dinner nor afterwards, a time full of learned references and brilliantly quick humor.
In 2013, my family decided to ring in 2014 in the Peruvian capital, and so, finally, we got to see Jannine and Eduardo in Lima. They usually spent Christmas and New Years with their relatives, fleeing from the Montana winter.
They invited us to dinner, and we embraced once again. Eduardo was a different Eduardo, thin as a skeleton. When I hugged him, I felt his bones, but his demeanor was unchanged. He joked and laughed with all the spontaneity of the one who sought out precise language for his poems. He told us that they had taken out his stomach and that he was undergoing chemotherapy and taking drugs that he hoped would produce positive results. Months later, we learned that the new medicines were not having the desired effects. He had to return to chemotherapy and new exams, but he showed an unconquerable spirit. He continued to write and participate in readings and conferences. He came to Quito. We had the good fortune of hosting him and the inseparable Jannine, who had always been a sort of energetic motor for Eduardo’s creativity. He travelled with her everywhere. He built his work with her, dedicating it several times to her tenacity and company. Eduardo and Jannine quickly adopted my daughter, Anaís, proposing that she finish her studies at the University of Montana. “Allá, no tienes que preocuparte de casa y comida”, they told her, “para nosotros sería un placer recibirte”. [“You won’t have to worry about meals and a place to stay there,” they told her; “It would be a pleasure for us to host you.”] That generosity is not just a poet’s, but of those who love life. Eduardo and Jannine worked together, travelled together, and enjoyed friendships as a gift of life. I’m also thinking of Jannine now, in that undefinable orphanhood, and I feel comfort knowing that all of the Eduardos are in the poetry that she saw him build, day after day, and that those poems will never abandon her.
In his 2014 visit, the poet brought me the gift of his more recent book: Medicinas para quebrantamientos del halcón (2014), an impeccable edition for Pre-Textos. Eduardo wrote a great deal; I must have ten or twelve of his books of poetry, but he wrote many more. He also did translations, wrote essays, edited and compiled poems by theme, like Coloquio de los animales (2008) and Treinta y cinco lecciones de biología (y tres crónicas didácticas) (2015). He wrote miscellaneous books where critical prose cohabitates with chronicles and verse: Epístola a los transeúntes (2001), El fingidor (2003), and Largos oficios inservibles (2004). On top of it all, he wrote children’s stories. But he poured all of his genius and ingenuity into poetry. His books of poetry are so unique it is as though each has its own life. Like Pessoa, Eduardo did not need to create heteronyms in order to construct a different tone. His books have the same voice but with distinct tones. And this book that he gave me in 2014, Medicinas para quebrantamientos del halcón, features the reflexive and deep tone of a voice that explores what happens when the body breaks down. From the opening note, it becomes clear that his purpose is not merely wrapped up in sickness, but writing: “mi cuerpo albergó un inquilino resuelto a suplantarme, a apoderarse de lo que es más íntimamente mío, a desordenar mis hábitos nocturnos, a alborotar tenazmente mi biblioteca. Escribí estos poemas prisionero de ese inquilino, bajo el oscuro aletazo de un cuervo mordaz y exigente. O de un halcón que reclamaba, como yo, medicinas para curar sus dolencias y aliviar sus quebrantamientos.” [“My body harbors a tenant intent upon supplanting me, taking control of what is most intimately my own, disrupting my nocturnal habits, obstinately disturbing my library. I wrote these poems the prisoner of that tenant, beneath the beating wings of a caustic, demanding crow. Or of a falcon that, like me, sought out medicines to cure its ailment and abate its deterioration.”]. Who speaks here? It is Eduardo, the poet or the falcon. The book is not strictly about his illness so much as the possibility of writing while “a tenant” undermines his body, taking advantage of the change in habits and customs. From there to the group of poems that conform the book reviews the formation of readings and memories that the voice goes about organizing into a language, as if it was superimposing one image over another, in some cases assembling an overlay in which the line between dream and memory is blurred. Take the second poem, “Puerta de Atocha-Estación de Los Desamparados.” Later on the voice will say: “Escribo sobre animales para olvidar mi cuerpo, para huir de me” [“I write about animals to forget my body, to flee from myself.”]. The reading continues from there, recreating moments and forgetting others. I did this reading after we hugged in Quito in 2014, the work of a poet grown bald and skinny like one of Giacometti’s sculptures. And it was in my house while we were speaking about poetry that my wife, the poet Aleyda Quevedo, proposed that he write a book for Ediciones de la Línea Imaginaria, which happened to be his only book published in Ecuador. Aleyda threw herself into that work, going over all of Eduardo’s poetry. She was in constant contact until he and Jannine returned to Quito in 2015 for the unveiling of his book: La música y el cuerpo, 50 poemas de Eduardo Chirinos (Quito, 2015). I must say, it’s a precious piece, curated with great love, which the poet and his wife love, just as we loved having him in our home once again. Eduardo was very ill. He felt fatigued and needed to take pre-planned naps in order to recover. His eyes teared up often. He said it was because of the strength of the medication, but even in this state, he gave a lecture in the Centro Cultural Carlos Fuentes del Fondo de Cultura Económica, an activity in the Bibliorecreo, and we presented his book in the Teatro Prometeo.
In the prologue to this book, his editor writes, “Chirinos solo reafirma que cada poema es una máscara que amplifica los deseos, los miedos, los amores, los desamores, para entregarnos una estética misteriosa y bella para interpretar el mundo. Tres cuerdas sostienen esta selección que me he atrevido a realizar luego de largos meses de lecturas en soledad y mucho discernimiento, pues no es nada fácil elegir tan solo 50 poemas de la vasta obra donde están: el amor, la música y los animales, tres temas que me seducen y que estoy segura también a ustedes, queridos lectores.” [“Chirinos only reaffirms that every poem is a mask that amplifies desire, fear, love, and indifference to provide us with a mysterious and beautiful aesthetic with which to interpret the world. Three strands sustain this selection that I have dared to carry out only after lengthy months of solitary reading and much discernment. Afterall, it is not each to select just 50 poems from the vast work where they reside: love, music, and animals, three themes that seduce me—and I am sure you as well, dear readers.”].
Without a doubt, it was a great book for our catalog. But more than that, it was our way of showing our love and admiration for the friend, poet, and traveler that carried music and poetry in his heart as his eternal luggage. That is why I remember him writing with music blaring, while outside the cancer of the world goes about corroding all.
Translated by Michael Redzich
Michael Redzich is currently studying law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2017 with a BA in Spanish and a BA in Letters. His interest in Latin American literature sprouted early in his Spanish education, but grew considerably during his time in Buenos Aires, where he lived from 2014 to 2016. Michael was one of the first OU undergraduate students to become involved with LALT, and he continues to work with LALT as a translator and editor-at-large.
Poet Edwin Madrid was born in Quito, Ecuador in November of 1961. He studied Economics at the Central University of Ecuador and Literature at the Simón Bolívar Andean University. He has published, among others, the verse collections: ¡O! Muerte de Pequeños Senos de Oro [O! Death of Small Gold Breasts] (1987); Enamorado de un fantasma [In love with a ghost] (1991); Celebriedad (1992), with which he won the National Short Story and Poetry Contest; Caballos e iguanas [Horses and Iguanas] (1993) and Tambor Sagrado y otros poemas [Sacred Drum and other poems] (1995). In 1990, he won the Djenana National Prize for Young Poetry. His poems were selected by Claude Couffon for the bilingual anthology Poesía Joven Hispanoamericana.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.