by Edith Grossman


The fundamental question that needs to be resolved in any approach to Parra's technique is why he invariably uses the glaringly prosaic discourse that characterizes antipoetry. There are two primary reasons for the consistent presence of colloquialisms and clichés in his writing. One grows directly out of Parra's continuing commitment to familiar, popular speech as his expressive and descriptive medium; this consideration has been discussed in Chapter 2, "The Theory of Antipoetry." The other is intimately related to Parra's ironic and comic purposes. When Parra uses banal language and humorous turns of phrase in compositions that are essentially tragic or pathetic, he creates an irony so pervasive that it determines important elements of structure in many of the antipoems.

Language that is not emotively congruous with the subject matter is a basic component of the structure of antipoetry. The ironic effect of prosaic language in this context underscores the differing points of view of the poem's protagonist and the reader who observes him, emphasizes the disparities between the tone of the work and its intention and highlights the tensions between connative and denotative statements which result from those disparities. Parra wants the reader to sense the incongruity and respond to the disparate emotional tones in antipoetry. He calls his writing a poetry of "affective tones that contrast with one another"' and he aphoristically describes the technique of antipoetry as one compounded of simultaneous "laughter and tears." The theoretical poems- "Advertencia al lector," for example, are documents of the delight he takes in discordant juxtapositions of serious, weighty matter and slang-ridden, banal language. The affective tones of antipoetry are the product of the intentionally inconsistent system of signs which Parra creates within each poem.

The imagery, the figures, the serious, comic, ordinary or exalted feeling of the language in a poem, the statement or perception which the poet communicates to the reader and the uniform or disparate manner in which all of these elements work together constitute a system of signs and emotive signals to the reader. The signals stimulate a visceral response that depends upon both the nature of each element in the sign system and whether each element is congruous or incongruous with all the others. If the response which a poet desires to stimulate and his poetic statement have an emotive tone and effect. that is comparable to the various elements which produce that statement, then the sign system is straightforward and direct and the affective texture of a poem is harmonious and classically decorous.' In compositions with a uniform sign system there is a relatively smooth and continuous development of the theme and a steady, almost predictable movement toward its conclusion. Parra, however, creates an inconsistent sign system in the antipoems. He uses comic clichés and banalities when he writes of despair and exploits the burlesque and parodic possibilities inherent in prosaic language, but behind the comically ironic mask he is in dead earnest. He intends to join the disparities, to treat pathetic themes as if they were humorous, forging a link between inconsistent signs by equating their affective impact and making a new antipoetic synthesis out of the incongruities. Parra has summarized the motivating force behind this synthesizing process with a typically sardonic and epigrammatic statement: "I think that the poet should be a specialist in communication. Humor makes contact (with the reader) easier. Remember that it's when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol" (Skarmeta, p. 38).

In antipoetry the most common objects -telephones, soda fountains, park benches, even the colloquial language in which the poems are written- although they are the ordinary artifacts of modern urban life, are charged with desperate significance. They become the hostile furniture of quotidian existence that stands in the way of the protagonists and prevents them from making any heroic gestures because their environment, habits and background render such gestures ludicrous:

I give no one the right.
I worship a piece of rag.
I transport coffins.
I transport coffins.
I give no one the right.
I look ridiculous
In the sunlight,
Scourge of the soda fountains
I am dying of fury


Yet the inhabitants of the antipoetic world -the personae of the poems- suffer, on the deepest level, the agonizing puzzles of aging, the passage of time and love, the inevitable confrontation with death and the bewildering realization that one becomes conscious of beauty and youth and potentiality only when one is losing them. Their feelings are universal, and profound, and familiar, but the expressive possibilities of the antipoetic protagonists strain against the verbal limitations of an experience that furnishes their world with taxis and boarding houses. It humiliates them with bleeding noses:

I don't know how I wound up here
I was running happy and content
With my hat in my right hand
After a phosphorescent butterfly
Who drove me wild with joy

When suddenly pow! I tripped
And I don't know what happened to the
The landscape changed completely!

My mouth and nose are bleeding.

Really I don't know what happened
Save me once and for all
Or shoot me in the back of the neck.

("Socorro!" [Help!])

It torments them with unheroic ailments:
The fact is that I feel bad
That same pain in my stomach
And the constant dizzy feeling.

What do you mean bad: I feel great!
I've never felt better in my life!
I only wish I could feel terrible!

Look carefully and you will see
That I can't stop laughing.

("Saranguaco" [Hodgepodge])

They live anguished lives which seem pathetic because their bellyaches and bloody noses are, from a "poetic" point of view, inappropriate to a tragic figure. Then too, the banal vocabulary of popular song lyrics, the glaring shorthand of journalists sentimentality, overripe clichés and jargon are the blunted means of communication that the protagonists use in their invariably deficient effort to verbalize their suffering and despair. Even the antipoetic characters' selfdefining concepts of themselves and their experiences are limited by the sentimental vocabulary and banal language of the mass culture. The irony of antipoetry is born of the union of an individualized, suffering consciousness with a remarkably prosaic language and gesture. Rodrfguez Monegal (in Aguirre and Palazuelos, p. 12), calls this the "deliberately colloquial . . . bureaucratic information" that is typical of the antipoetic style. Parra uses it to affect the reader by reexposing him, in an unexpected context, to the language he hears and may well use every day:

It is with great satisfaction
That I take advantage of this marvelous
Made available to me by the science of death
To clarify a few issues ....

("Lo que el difunto dijo de sí mismo" ["What the Dead Man Said about Himself"])

The challenge for the antipoet is to achieve two different artistic effects simultaneously, and to make these opposites complementary. On the one hand, Parra modulates the tensions between the prosaic and tragic elements within the same work and creates the synthesis of comedy and pathos. This is an essential factor in the distinctive affective texture of antipoetry. But he also manipulates and emphasizes the tension between the opposing emotive signals to the reader. In other words, he stresses the differences between the prosaic, comic signs and the tragic, pathetic signs so that the reader is constantly aware of their ironic incompatibility. Parra then incorporates the reader into the ironic structure itself by using our perception of disparity as an intrinsic part of that structure. Parra intends that the reader's sense of the differences between the protagonist's banal language and the emotional misery huddled behind his clichés produce a feeling of ironic distance between himself, the observer of the protagonist and the created persona who lives and speaks each poem. The language in each poem has a comic effect that lies well within our grasp. Because it is easily accessible to the reader it is directly responsible for the psychic separation of the observer from the protagonist, who invariably has a witless, inept response to the poetic situation. The reader is affected by the comic tone of the poem (its denotation) at variance with its presentation of a distraught emotional state (its connotation).

Carlos Bousoño, the Spanish critic, makes no reference to Parra in his book Teoría de la expresión poética (A Theory of Poetic Expression), 3a ed. (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1962), but in Chapter X11, "La poesía y la comicidad" (Poetry and the Comic), his discussion of the inherent differences between comedy and poetry not only clarifies the antipoetic process, but also seems to give a theoretical and objective justification for Parra's use of the term antipoetry. Bousoño cites Bergson's formula "Laughter arises from the contemplation of something mechanical or rigid injected into what is living" (p. 285), and then he elucidates that basic statement: ". . . every joke makes us perceive a certain awkwardness, a rigidity or mechanization in the spirit or body of another human being ...." (pp. 288-289). Bousoño goes on to compare two kinds of figurative language and finds that in general disparity typifies the comic phenomenon, while decorum is characteristic of the poetic. His remarks are an enlightening contribution to the definition of antipoetic irony: ". . . the poet wants the objects united in the image to bear a maximum resemblance to each other (either physically or emotively), to coincide as much as possible in an intrinsic, fundamental way. The comic writer, on the contrary, avoids strong analogy and tries to achieve minimal resemblance: the comic metaphor occurs when two objects which resemble one another very little are presented as equivalent" (pp. 292-293). Finally, Bousoño asserts that the reader's perception of rigid or mechanized responses in the protagonist (in other words, his perception of disparity and inadequacy) is the source of the comic, as opposed to the lyrical or decorous phenomenon (the italics are Bousoño's): "The reader . . . perceives the spiritual reality of the subject as unsuitable or inappropriate to the circumstances. It is a reality that would not exist if the subject were in accord with the life around him or with his own life, if the texture of his soul were not overly rigid .... We accept a poetic content; we do not accept a comic one, but we do tolerate it, since the `error' manifested there is produced by an easily recognizable cause .... Poetry and jokes are two sides of the same coin, the two poles of a sphere. The opposite of poetry is not `prose' in the sense of unpoetic diction. The opposite of poetry is the joke" (pp. 296-297).

Bousoño's definition of comedy can be applied to antipoetry in this way: when the reader carries the suggestions, statements and incongruities of the antipoem to their logically emotive conclusion, he can intuit the restrictive, tortuous situation which is at the root of the persona's suffering, and then interpret his predicament differently from the protagonist. The irony which results is situational: at once burlesque and pathetic, it is concurrent with the sense of distance between the persona, who describes and reacts to his circumstance, and the reader who, in his own eyes, makes a more sensitive and insightful interpretation of the poetic situation. Parra insists on the distance between them. The irony produced by their different perceptions of the same situation -that is, the situational irony- causes the reader to view the persona's ineffectual and automatic responses with a mixture of scorn, pity and amusement. The reader's feelings of inappropriate but irresistible amusement, even though the protagonist's suffering surely calls for compassion, is central to the ironic structure of the antipoems in which the reader seems to have more insight than the protagonist. As if the antipoem were an epistolary novel in which we know and perceive vastly more than at least one of the correspondents, much of the bitter humor of antipoetry stems from this basic ironic situation: we are in on the joke while the victim, the protagonist, is innocent of its implications or helpless to do anything about them:

I a born delinquent
Caught infraganti
Stealing flowers by the light of the moon
I beg the whole world's pardon
But I do not admit that I am guilty

("Yo pecador" [I a Sinner])

The tensions which are created by the contrast between the protagonist's partial awareness and our seemingly more complete awareness place the reader in a position of apparent superiority, for he prides himself on his high level of consciousness, his sensitivity to the subtle emotional ramifications of the poetic situation and his intuitive knowledge that lies far beyond the protagonist's capacities. In Baudelaire's words: ". . . there will be found in the mental attitude of the one who laughs, a certain unconscious sense of pride . . . the essence of the comic is ... the development in the spectator, or in the reader, of a delighted consciousness of his own superiority. . ." (3) We can respond to the prosaic denotations of the poem with amusement and even apprehend the fitting compassionate response to its moving connotations, but the persona is limited by the restrictions of his linguistic and emotional experience and reacts to his despair with inadequate banalities. The reader's initial response -his belief that this is comic poetry- grows out of his perception of an everwidening and comforting distance between himself and the protagonist whose words and gestures are consistently inappropriate to the circumstances that cause his suffering. The pathetic connotations of the poem, juxtaposed to the familiar, shallow or absurd language and data of daily life that are the poem's ironic denotations, are the components of the antipoetic synthesis which galvanize us into an uncommon response to the common language of the antipoem. In other words, the emotional impact of antipoetry is created in spite of, not because of, the elements that Parra employs to make his statements. The explicit statements of each antipoem are almost never consonant with the implicit meaning of the composition. We perceive the incongruity and are amused.

But the reader experiences a subsequent reaction which intensifies and compounds the ironic structure and is necessary for the fulfillment of the poet's intention. Parra makes certain that the language is ordinary, the circumstances familiar and the backgrounds commonplace. And indeed, they are ordinary, familiar and commonplace because they are the same as the reader's. They are the unavoidable facts of urban living and the component elements of our own quotidian experience. When the reader realizes this -when he hears his own favorite cliché in the mouth of the protagonist, for example- he also realizes that he has been deceived in his feeling of superiority. We shamefacedly have to accept that our responses would probably be the same as the protagonist's if we were in his situation. At this moment the ironic distance begins to close, the reader stops being the removed, superior observer of the protagonist and becomes instead his Baudelairean twin and brother, taking on the shape, form and reponses of the poetic persona. The multiple points of view that contributed to the ironic structure and account for much of the humor in antipoetry become a single point of view as the observer and the protagonist merge into one suffering identity.

The desperate quandary that amuses us because it is not ours, and moves us to a not unpleasurable, somewhat scornful compassion for the pathetic protagonist, lacks the awesome cathartic quality that we might hope for in the medium that has become the poetic expression of our own feelings and situation. The language and gesture that the reader now sees as his own may be ignoble, banal and even comic, yet they indicate a deeply felt struggle against the powerful restrictions of our human condition. Parra forces us, in the embarrassing company of his protagonist, into the unenviable position of Everyman. Parra's purposes approximate the sardonic, all-embracing denunciations of a moralist, for the weaknesses, frustrations and unheroic despair revealed in the clichés and prosaic jargon of the antipoems are the "sins" of the reader as well as of the protagonist. The ineptitudes, failures and foolishness of his antihero are achingly familiar. The banalities of his linguistic, gestural and emotional reponses chagrin us because they are the mirror image of our own ineffectual language and bewildered gesture when we are confronted by the vast mortifications of our condition.

The irony of the initial distance between reader and persona is compounded by their eventual identification. The inferior perceptions and attenuated sensitivity of the protagonist, counted on by the reader as a guarantee of his own self-esteem, is chimerical. Our half-contemptuous laughter at the expense of the protagonist becomes an integral part of the structural irony when we are unwillingly made aware of our pathetic fusion with him: "Laughter, they say, comes of superiority . . . laughter is, to some extent, a symptom of weakness. Indeed, what more obvious sign of debility can there be than the nervous convulsion . . . provoked by somebody else's misfortune .... What spectacle can be more deplorable than that of weakness rejoicing at weakness?" (Baudelaire, pp. 115-116).

The complex antipoetic structure is the crucial center of the textual analyses that follow. The works I discuss with this structure in mind are prototypical antipoems and models of the ironic process which, to varying degrees, is present in most of Parra's writing. These paradigmatic examples of antipoetry are from Poemas y antipoemas and are thematically and technically interrelated, although the ironic technique that unites them is not confined to that collection or these poems.

"Preguntas a la hora del té" (Questions at Tea-time), "Notas de viaje" (Travel Notes), "El peregrino" (The Pilgrim), "Recuerdos de juventud" (Memories of Youth), "El túnel" (The Tunnel), "La víbora" (The Viper) and "La trampa" (The Trap) form a thematic unit. The seven poems make similar poetic statements, and despite obvious variations they are closely related to each other through identical syntax, referents and imagery. Except for the first ("Preguntas a la hora del té"), which is a preface to the thematic unit rather than an intrinsic part of it, the poems constitute the confessions of a poetic persona whom Parra identifies as "I." In my discussion all references are to the persona and not to the man.

The poems recall a period in the past when the protagonist is completely cut off from meaningful emotional and physical contact with the rest of the world. His extreme isolation is manifested as obscurity in his writing:

I spent the nights at my desk
Absorbed in the practice of automatic writing
("El túnel")

as metaphysical speculations:

Is the transparent glass superior
To the hand of the man who creates it?
("Preguntas a la hora del té")

as barren relations with other people:

People laughed at my sudden fits
Individuals shook in their armchairs like algae
moved by the waves
And women gave me hate-filled looks

("Recuerdos de juventud")

and as symptoms of a total spiritual and bodily malaise:

A soul that has been bottled up for years
In a kind of sexual and intellectual abyss
Barely feeding himself through the nose
Wants you to listen to him
("El peregrino")

His wasteland has a beginning and an ending, and follows a definite pattern. He is involuntarily seduced into a figurative prison, often by a woman or women. The prison is alternately conceived of, in concrete symbolic terms, as a tunnel, a trap, an abyss, a bottle, a ship's cabin, a round room, a house. Regardless of its form, he is enclosed in the prison and stumbles through it. He simultaneously knocks into the people and objects of the real world, but has no relation to them. He sometimes calls for help, but is not heard or understood, and is shunned for his absurd remarks. Exhausted by the trivial or venal activities he is obliged to engage in, he eventually moves toward an escape, but at great cost to his vital energies. The imprisonment evoked in the poems primarily symbolizes a self-imposed social and literary isolation, and a devastating sexual and emotional crisis. Parra merges the problems of the public and the private selves to render a complete portrait of an alienated, suffering personality, yet despite the profound seriousness of the theme-the self lost and the hope of the self regained-it is presented in the ironic, parodic, ordinary language of antipoetry.

Because it is a concise and direct statement of the basic problems which are the root causes of the protagonist's suffering, "Preguntas a la hora del té" can serve as an introduction to the thematic unit.

This pale gentleman seems like
A figure in the wax museum;
He looks through the torn curtains:
What is worth more, gold or beauty?
Is the moving stream worth more
Or the immobile grass on the bank?
In the distance a bell is heard
That opens one more wound, or closes it:
Is the water in the fountain more real
Or the girl who looks at herself in it?
No one knows, people pass him by
Building castles in the sand.
Is the transparent glass superior
To the hand of the man who creates it?

One breathes a tired air
Of ashes, of smoke, of sadness:
What was once seen is not seen again
The same way, say the dry leaves.
Time for tea, toast, margarine,
Everything enveloped in a kind of fog.

The nostalgic, depressed tone of the poem is consistent with its restrained style. Although the references and vocabulary are banal, the familiar language is free of comically charged clichés, and a trite phrase like "a kind of" has a conversational rather than a humorous effect. The irony in this fairly early work (it is from Section I of Poemas y antipoemas) lies not so much in the language used to present the protagonist's metaphysical speculations as in the contrast between the dreary, desolate background and the platonistic "questions" that preoccupy him as he ponders the problems of movement as opposed to permanence, the temporal as opposed to the eternal, art as opposed to the artisan. The problems are old and insoluble, and "enveloped in a kind of fog." The sense of cerebral waste is matched by the dying season ("dry leaves"), the protagonist's unhealthy pallor and his isolation from the outside world which he looks at "through the torn curtains" as "people pass him by."

The problems of solitary withdrawal from the real world into an enclosure and of inadequate response to the world are summarized in "Preguntas a la hora del té," and Parra clearly states their cause. His protagonist perceives reality incompletely because his vision is hampered by a cloudy mysticism which is symbolized by the torn curtain. His philosophical preoccupations seem tired and meaningless because the symbol for them is ludicrously trivial and ordinary when compared to the protagonist's ponderous speculations. The six poems of the thematic unit enlarge upon this theme, dealing with it in varying contexts but with comparable ironic emphasis.

The rhetorical figures of indirect vision and enclosure, which represent the imprisonment of the protagonist, are treated in much greater detail in "El túnel," where Parra provides more specific information about his alienated antihero:

I spent a period of my youth in the house of
some aunts
Because of the death of a gentleman who
had been an intimate friend of theirs
And whose ghost annoyed them mercilessly
Making their life impossible.
At first I was deaf to their telegrams

To their letters written in the language of
another time
Full of mythological allusions
And the proper names of people I knew
nothing about
Some of them belonged to ancient wise men
To second rate medieval philosophers
Or simply to people in the neighborhood
where they lived.
Leaving the university just like that
Breaking with the charms of the gallant life
Interrupting everything
Just to satisfy the whims of three hysterical
old women
Full of all kinds of personal problems
Seemed, to a person like me, to be
A not very attractive future
A mad idea.

Nevertheless, I lived in The Tunnel for four
In close proximity to those fearful ladies
Four years of constant martyrdom
Martyrdom day and night.
The hours of happiness I spent under the
Soon turned into weeks of boredom
Into months of anguish which I did my best to
So as not to arouse curiosity about myself.
They turned into years of ruin and misery
Into centuries of imprisonment that my soul
Inside a bottle on the table!

My spiritualist conception of the world
Put me in a position of absolute inferiority
when confronted by real facts:
I saw everything through a prism
At the bottom of which the images of my
aunts wove in and out like living threads
Forming a kind of impenetrable armor
That wounded my vision and made it more and more

A young man of limited means doesn't know
about things.
He lives in a bell jar called Art
Called Lust, called Science
Trying to make contact with a world of
That only exist for him and a small group of

Under the effects of a kind of water vapor
That filtered in through the floor of my room
And filled the air and made everything
I spent my nights at my desk
Absorbed in the practice of automatic writing.

But why go any further into these unpleasant
Those matrons made a miserable fool of me
With their false promises, their strange
Their skillfully simulated sorrows
They managed to keep me in their nets for
Tacitly obliging me to work for them
Doing agricultural chores
And buying and selling animals
Until one night, looking through the keyhole
I realized that one of them
My paralyzed aunt!
Could walk perfectly well on tiptoe
And I came back to reality with a goddamn
awful feeling.

Almost without realizing it the protagonist is drawn into the ambience of his "aunts." During an unspecified time of his youth he enters their figurative tunnel where he remains for "four years of constant martyrdom," and his "hours of happiness" are transformed into "weeks of boredom," "months of anguish," "years of ruin and misery" and "centuries of imprisonment." This seemingly endless time of misery and alienation is expressed in two basic tropes, both of which evoke the image of faulty perception and imprisonment. One refers to glass as the barrier between the protagonist and the world, the other alludes to a misty vapor that clouds his vision, obscures his surroundings and is really a second barrier between himself and reality. Beginning with the title of the poem, the images of enclosure are "Inside a bottle on the table," "in a bell jar," and "they managed to keep me in their nets." The images of faulty perception are closely related to the figure of imprisonment: "I saw everything through a prism," "The images of my aunts wove in and out like living threads/ Forming a kind of impenetrable armor/ That wounded my vision and made it more and more ineffective." Not all the prisons are of glass: the tunnel and the net also enclose him. Glass not only imprisons him, but affects his vision as well: he sees "everything through a prism."

Parra expresses the isolation of the protagonist in concrete terms and specifies the nature of his imprisonment by clearly identifying its causes. Both the persona and his aunts are to blame for his enclosure, because both the young man and the old women share attitudes that inevitably lead to psychic, social and literary isolation. Every interpretative signal to the reader concerning the characters of the protagonist and his aunts is presented as an image of imprisonment or defective vision. For example, the first indication of his personality is also the first allusion to the imprisonment:

. . . I did my best to hide
So as not to arouse curiousity about myself

The protagonist consciously presents a false front to the world, but once he is locked into the subterfuge he discovers that the acceptable appearance is transformed into a prison as inevitably as the "months of anguish" turn into "centuries of imprisonment."

The protagonist's "spiritualist conception of the world" is intimately connected to his alienation; this phrase introduces the lines that describe the total distortion of his visual perceptions and which indicate the real causative relationship between his failed ability to perceive, his enclosure and the three old women:

I saw everything through a prism
At the bottom of which the images of my
aunts wove in and out like living threads
Forming a kind of impenetrable armor
That wounded my vision and made it more
and more ineffective.

He becomes more and more involuted as he withdraws into abstractions, metaphysical speculations and the obscure literary pleasures of the avantgarde. The three aunts may well represent the various manifestations of his isolation in the tunnel: the denial of his true self, the belief in a world of the spirit, the practice of automatic writing that searches for meaning in the individual unconscious and not in social relationships. In any case, they are fraudulent and deceptive. They are "hysterical" and "fearful" old women who catch him in their nets, distort his perceptions and, worst of all, keep him prisoner in their tunnel under false pretenses. From the very beginning of the poem they weave the enclosure of isolation around the protagonist until he becomes an almost willing prisoner in the tunnel. The feeling of hysterical, willful guile begins with the first allusion to a dead past in their initial communications with him and finally blossoms into his discovery that the allegedly paralyzed aunt is walking around on tiptoe. His sudden, brusque contact with reality is depicted as a clearing of his vision, although it ironically occurs when he squints his eyes to peep through a keyhole. The immediate result is that he is freed from the clutches of the old women and from the tunnel in which he had been enclosed. But it is not a joyous escape. Despite the misery and boredom in the tunnel, it gives him a "goddamn awful feeling" to have to confront his freedom again. As Parra says in the poem "Inflación" (Inflation):

Inside the cage there is food.
Not much, but some.
Outside there are only vast stretches of

Parra does not give any information about the world outside the tunnel, but it is reasonable to assume that it contains the opposite of all he found inside the prison-the tedious abstractions, the hidden and obscure relationships among things and ideas, the retreat to the coterie in his writings-in short, all the deformations of reality that can be subsumed under the rubric a "spiritualist conception of the world."

"El peregrino" presents another aspect of the protagonist's isolation. In this poem he wanders aimlessly and makes unsuccessful attempts at reaching out to the rest of the world for physical and spiritual contact. He is, however, still imprisoned and discovers in despair that there is still no link to the world for him, for he is ignored by its inhabitants, and the trap is unchanged. Ironically, the rhetorical figure that expresses his isolation is one of simultaneous pilgrimage and imprisonment. Parra has called the first six lines a burlesque invocation to the muse, after which "the poet becomes serious-and then he begins to cry."'

Attention, ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!
Turn your heads toward this side of the republic for a moment,
Forget your personal affairs for a night,
Pleasure and pain can wait at the door:
A voice is heard from this side of the republic.
Attention, ladies and gentlemen! Your attention please!

A soul that has been bottled up for years
In a kind of sexual and intellectual abyss,
Barely feeding himself through the nose
Wants you to listen to him.

I want to be told about some things,
I need a little light, the garden is covered with flies,
I'm in a disastrous mental state,
I reason in my own way;
While I say these things I see a bicycle leaning against a wall,
I see a bridge
And an automobile that disappears between the buildings.
All of you comb your hair, that's true, you walk through gardens,
Under your skin you have another skin,

You have a seventh sense
That lets you go in and out automatically,
But I am a child behind the rocks who calls to its mother,

I am a pilgrim who kicks stones up to his nose,
A tree that shouts to be covered with leaves.

The opening stanza uses colloquial language for a public announcement that commands, in bizarre fashion, a private action: "Forget your personal affairs for a night." The reader has the sense of listening to a voice strained by distance, distorted by the formalistic banality of a loudspeaker, magnified to the point of incomprehensibility. The ironic pairing of the public call and the references to "personal affairs" is emphasized by Parra's use of intimate forms of address (in Spanish volved [turn], olvidad [forget]), and by the phrase "this side of the republic," as if the human voice could span the breadth of a republic.

The mock invocation has more than parodic purposes. Parra makes important figurative statements in the opening lines. The protagonist evidently feels an enormous sense of urgency. His plight is of such consequence that he demands that those who hear him sacrifice "personal matters" as compelling as "pleasure" and "pain." He establishes the idea of distance and isolation, for his call comes from the other side of the "republic".-over a vast distance that must weaken any voice, even one that is magnified. The repetition of the call for attention, with the addition of exclamation marks, suggests that no one hears his first message, and that the protagonist becomes more and more frantic. Yet despite his frenzied plea and the allusions to the private lives of his presumptive listeners, the protagonist underscores his own isolation by referring to himself in the most impersonal and distant manner possible, as if he were the disembodied voice of an anonymous public official speaking into the microphone of a public address system.

In the second stanza the depersonalized despair of the speaker increases in intensity. He is simply an undifferentiated "voice [that] is heard," "a soul that . . . wants you to listen to him." But the people he calls to are now addressed in the formal third person (ustedes in Spanish) in contrast to the intimate forms of address used previously. Simultaneously, the protagonist moves from the third to the first person when referring to himself, as if his unheeded call, and the movement away of his supposed listeners (their distance is suggested by the formal mode of address) heightens his frenzied despair so much that he foregoes impersonality and speaks, finally, as himself:


Wants you to listen to him.

I want to be told about some things.

The figurative enclosure of the protagonist for a specific period of time is alluded to and developed by means of the phrase "a kind of." It is used in key lines of other poems in the thematic unit, and always refers to the protagonist's imprisonment and faulty perception. In this poem, he is enclosed "In a kind of sexual and intellectual abyss." In "El túnel" his vision is either damanged by "a kind of impenetrable armor" or clouded by "a kind of water vapor." In "Preguntas a la hora del té" he is enveloped in a "kind of mist." Moreover, the "sexual and intellectual abyss" in "El peregrino" has the same enclosing quality that characterizes the imprisonment in the other poems. The "sexual abyss" evokes the malevolent female presence often identified with the trap: his aunts in "El túnel," his mistress in "La víbora," the women around him in "Recuerdos de juventud" and the girl he speaks to on the telephone in "La trampa". In all of these poems sexuality is associated with females who entrap and imprison the male, both psychically and physically. The "intellectual abyss" is an expression of the false attitudes and beliefs which characterize the protagonist's imprisonment. The reference to eating through his nose, for example, suggests a lack of tangible experience which Parra associates with metaphysical and abstract speculations: the only thing that can be "eaten" through the nose is smoke or the aroma of food.' The image also prefigures his description of himself at the end of the poem as "a pilgrim who kicks stones up to his nose." The image not only suggests the barren, rocky place of his imprisonment, but also indicates that these stones may be the agony and isolation of his aimless journey, and that therefore the protagonist feeds on his own sorrow. The abyss of his intellectual isolation is evoked in rather laconic but vivid terms:

I need a little light, the garden is covered with flies,
I'm in a disastrous mental state,
I reason in my own way.

Parra's description of the protagonist's abyss is both concrete and indirect. In other words, he calls out only for what he does not have. His requests are concrete, and by extension they define the enclosure. He is in ignorance ("I want to be told about some things"), he is in darkness, in all the literal and figurative senses of the word ("I need a little light"), and he is rotting, sexually and intellectually ("the garden is covered with flies").(6) He is desolate and alone, while the others are always plural. He is a pilgrim through a rocky landscape while they engage in ordinary, commonplace activities. He is in a desert while they walk through pleasant gardens. He is naked while they are dressed in several skins. He is an abandoned child while the rest seem to possess a special, shared knowledge and understanding from which he- is excluded. The protagonist is a child, a pilgrim, a tree; solitary and unprotected he suffers from an intellectual eccentricity that condemns him to an apparently perpetual isolation ("I reason in my own way"). The protagonist's "disastrous mental state"-his "intellectual abyss"-is directly comparable to the artistic introversion described in "El túnel," for both are emblematic of his withdrawal from a society that he peers at through the transparent walls of the bottle-prison or through the distorting prism of his enclosure in the tunnel.

The world outside the prison is presented as the epitome of ordinariness, yet it looks like paradise to the protagonist because it seems so strikingly different from his own turmoil. Those "ladies and gentlemen" can engage in any commonplace activity they choose, for they are well protected from the world and from each other. They can walk calmly through gardens that hold no sinister meaning for them, they can comb their hair or pass through a door unthinkingly and feel no impinging menace. They have, in short, the know-how of ordinary living that seems like a magical seventh sense to the protagonist in his isolation. Parra repeats the formal ustedes (you) four times in this section of the poem, emphasizing the distance between those on the outside and the persona, and preparing the reader for the emotionally charged ending of the poem. In the final lines the protagonist is described metaphorically, and his extreme separation from the world is stressed, while at the same time Parra reintroduces the possibility of speech as the means of communication with the rest of the world: the child calls, the tree shouts. As if they were contiguous points on the perimeter of a circle, the protagonist's last desperate pleas for help connect with the formalistic and grotesque call for attention that opens the poem. The final images describe the abyss and reiterate and summarize the entire work. The protagonist's side of the republic is a stony place, a bottle-prison that encloses his soul. He calls to the outside, but his language is wrong as it changes from a public announcement to a lost child's cry to the mute shout of a leafless tress. His garden grows nothing but stones, and it is covered with flies, but he can see others strolling through a more fertile landscape. In his despair he can see the outside world, but every effort to reach it is doomed.

"Notas de viaje" specifies the time and localizes the place of the protagonist's solitary imprisonment. The poem intensifies the sense of confinement by counterpointing the protagonist's forced enclosure in a stateroom to the larger enclosure of the ship:

For years I stayed away from my position
I took up traveling, exchanging impressions with the people I talked to,
I took up sleeping;
But scenes I had lived through in the past would come to mind.
During the dance I would think about absurd things:
I would think about some heads of lettuce I had seen the day before when I went past the kitchen,
I would think no end of fantastic things in connection with my family;
Meanwhile the boat had already entered the river,
It was making its way through a school of jellyfish.
Those photographic scenes affected my mind,
Forced me to shut myself up in my cabin;
I forced myself to eat, I rebelled against myself
I constituted a permanent danger on board
Because at any moment I could come out with some piece of nonsense.

The ship symbolizes the protagonist's exile, his removal from the world. It also seems to represent an ironic microcosm of a fatuous society whose only noteworthy activities are exchanging impressions and dancing. But Parra also indicates that the sea voyage may be a sign of the protagonist's eventual return to and participation in the world's affairs, for the ship is leaving the high seas, entering the river and presumably coming into port. In other words, the protagonist is returning to his "position" -the useful activity from which he has been separated during his years of wandering imprisonment. The Spanish word puesto implies "position" in the sense of a stable emotional center and "occupation" or meaningful work and involvement in social relationships. The protagonist has wilfully abandoned both for the frivolous life on board ship, but he is frustrated in his attempts to participate in it. He is plagued by obsessive rumination about the most irrelevant matters and tormented by acute observations of minutiae which disturb his misdirected efforts at communication. In "El peregrino," for example, the protagonist is distracted by a bicycle, a bridge, an automobile and buildings at the very moment that he calls out to those who move freely through the world. In "Notas de viaje" the trivia of ordinary living again interpose themselves between him and the world he tries to reach; he remembers some heads of lettuce as he attempts to take part in a commonplace social activity like dancing.

The protagonist's thoughts and actions on the ship are consistently inane. He is driven mad by "scenes" -his past experiences- tries to contain his frenzy by thinking about lettuce and finally has to retreat into his cabinan act which is tantamount to doubling the enclosure around him. But the ship and its passengers are equally absurd. They represent no real options to the imprisonment, and are as insignificant and unimportant as the travels, conversations, and sleep that replace his "position". In a very real sense they are his imprisonment, his withdrawal from his proper position in the world. The desperate protagonist strains to communicate with a world that is simply not worth the effort.

Sexuality is a prominent component of the protagonist's enclosure. In "El peregrino" Parra describes the abyss as both sexual and intellectual; the dance in "Notas de viaje" is a sign of eroticism which is expanded in "La víbora" into a symbol of frenzied desire. In "Notas de viaje" the distractions which plague the protagonist while he is dancing evoke the sexual alienation which is an integral part of his social isolation, and the incident which triggers his hysterical withdrawal into his stateroom -and which, ironically, indicates the passage home- is the difficult passage of the ship through a "school of jellyfish". The reference is similar to the sexual allusion "kind of jelly" in "Recuerdos de juventud" and suggests the female genitals. In other words, Parra represents women and sexuality as both the way into and the way out of the enclosing prison. And although it is intercourse itself that imprisons and encloses the protagonist, Parra also describes women, somewhat sardonically, as the salvation of the human race in "Los vicios del mundo moderno" (The Vices of the Modern World):

Let us try to be happy, that's what I recommend, by sucking at the miserable human rib.
Let us draw from it the restorative fluid,
Let us cling to this divine bit of flesh!
Let us suck at these lips that drive us mad;
Let us breathe this enervating and destructive perfume
And live the life of the elect for one more day.
Man gets the wax he needs to shape the faces of his idols from under his armpits.
And from women's sex the straw and mud for his temples.

But the promise of the return in "Notas de viaje" is unfulfilled. The ship never actually reaches port, and the protagonist is not yet free.

"La tramps" explores the two distinct but intimately related manifestations of the protagonist's imprisonment. This is a poem about the "sexual and intellectual abyss":

During that time I would flee scenes that were too mysterious.
Like people with stomach trouble who avoid heavy meals,
I preferred to stay at home elucidating certain questions
Concerning the reproduction of spiders,
To which end I would shut myself up in the garden
And not appear in public until the early hours of the morning;
Or in shirtsleeves, in a defiant attitude,
I would also hurl angry glances at the moon
Trying to avoid those evil-tempered thoughts
That stick to the human soul like polyps.
When I was alone I had absolute control over myself,
I would go back and forth fully conscious of my actions
Or stretch out among the boards in the cellar
And dream, and think up procedures, and resolve minor emergencies.
Those were the times when I put my famous oneiric method into operation,
Which consists of doing violence to yourself, and dreaming whatever you want,
And instigating scenes arranged beforehand with the help of the Beyond.
In this way I managed to obtain valuable data
Concerning a whole series of doubts that afflict our lives:
Trips abroad, erotic confusions, religious complexes.
But all my precautions were useless
Because for reasons that are hard to explain
I began to slide automatically down a kind of inclined plane,
Like a balloon losing air my soul lost altitude,
My instinct for self-preservation stopped working
And deprived of my most essential prejudices
I fell fatally into the trap of the telephone
That attracts everything around it, like an abyss,
And with trembling hands I dialed that damned number
That I still repeat automatically while I'm sleeping.
Those moments were filled with uncertainty and misery
While I, like a skeleton standing in front of that infernal table
Covered with yellow cretonne,
Waited for an answer from the other end of the world,
The other half of myself a prisoner in a pit.
Those intermittent noises on the telephone
Affected me like a dentist's drill,
They sank into my soul like needles thrown down from above
Until, when the moment finally arrived,
I began to perspire and to stammer feverishly.
My tongue was like a piece of veal
Hanging between me and the girl I was talking to
Like those black curtains that separate us from the dead.
I didn't want to have those conversations that were too intimate
But I provoked them anyway, like a fool,
With my voice full of desire, charged with electricity.
When I heard myself called by my first name
In that tone of forced intimacy
I was filled with vague discomfort,
With agonizing localized disturbances that I tried to ward off
By means of a system of rapid questions and answers
That created a state of pseudoerotic excitation in her
And that eventually affected me as well
Taking the form of incipient erections and a feeling of failure
Then I'd force myself to laugh and then I'd fall into a state of mental prostration.
Those absurd conversations would go on for hours
Until the landlady of the boarding house appeared behind the screen
And brusquely interrupted that stupid idyll,
Those contortions of a candidate for heaven
And those catastrophes that were so depressing to my spirit
But which did not stop completely when I hung up the phone
Since, generally, we would have a date
To see each other the next day at a soda fountain
Or in the door of a church whose name I don't care to remember.

During "that time," the specific period of imprisonment mentioned in so many of the poems of the thematic unit, the protagonist avoids "scenes that were too mysterious" by fleeing into his emotional imprisonment and withdrawal. The opening of the poem establishes the important rhetorical figure of flight by referring to his enclosure in the house and in the garden, where the protagonist sets up protective barriers between himself and a menacing reality that is represented by the mysterious "scenes." Inside the enclosure he devotes himself to that strangely compulsive cerebration which characterizes the intellectual abyss. His fruitless meditations, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes trivial, are associated with the garden-that is, with the figure of plant growth that is a constant sign of the imprisonment. His other activities, too, are maniacally insignificant. Parra's description is ironic in the extreme as he presents the protagonist hurling "angry glances at the moon" or lying down in the cellar to solve "minor emergencies." The protagonist's useless anger with the cosmos and his solitary cerebration introduce the burlesque of the "famous oneiric method," reminiscent of his "automatic writing" and "spiritualist conception of the world" in "El túnel"; in both poems these actions and attitudes are meant to signify flight and withdrawal into a devastating intellectual isolation. The "valuable data" he obtains inside the enclosure is in fact valueless because it is the result of avoiding "eviltempered thoughts" and "scenes that were too mysterious." In short, he spends his days and nights in a frenzy of busy activity that is insignificant and unquestionably foolish. His preoccupation with the distractions inside the enclosure are rather like the efforts of the squirrel to keep the wheel inside his cage turning. Similarly, the protagonist's meaningless but absorbing projects are part of his frantic attempt to maintain his precarious emotional balance on the edge of the precipice. But his "precautions," his "instinct for self-preservation" and his "prejudices" all fail him, and he falls into the abyss of frustrated and ungratified sexuality, represented by the telephone because it is a mechanical and secondhand means of communication. Parra complicates the imagery by presenting the intellectual abyss as the protagonist's enclosure and withdrawal into the house and garden, and then by representing the sexual abyss in the concrete physical image of the protagonist sliding down the sides of a chasm.

The poem is actually divided into two sections. The first describes the intellectual disasters that the protagonist falls victim to, while the second elaborates his grotesque and stifled sexuality. It is not by accident that his tortured eroticism as he slides into the abyss of frustrated sexuality is conceived of as the fall, for the perversions of love that await the protagonist at the bottom of the pit are indeed the primal and original sin. Nevertheless, the intellectual abyss at the brink of the sexual one has an equally shattering effect on him. If in the first he avoids contact with the real world by withdrawing and enclosing himself, in the second he avoids the physical enclosure of the sexual embrace by using the telephone as his means of communication, by indulging in false, unsatisfying stimulation, by meeting the woman in public places. Significantly, Parra introduces a new set of images based on sickness and death, and relates them directly to the sexual imagery and the trope of enclosure and imprisonment. The rhetorical figure of sickness is manifest in the semiscientific jargon used in this section of the poem, and in the protagonist's descriptions of his terrible mental and physical anguish. They appear in the following order:

my soul lost altitude

with trembling hands I dialed that damned number

Those moments were filled with uncertainty and misery

Those intermittent noises on the telephone
Affected me like a dentist's drill,
They sank into my soul like needles


I began to perspire and to stammer feverishly.

I was filled with vague discomfort,
With agonizing localized disturbances . . .

. . . a state of pseudoerotic excitation
. . . that eventually affected me as well
Taking the form of incipient erections and a feeling of failure.
Then I'd force myself to laugh and then I'd fall into a state of mental prostration.

The images of death include the failure of the protagonist's "instinct for self-preservation" which is responsible for his falling "fatally" into the abyss, the protagonist's comparison of himself to a "skeleton" in front of an "infernal" telephone table, and his stuttering conversation which he compares to the "black curtains that separate us from the dead." The association of sexuality with death, disease and emotional malaise transforms the primary image of enclosure and imprisonment into a malevolent female metaphor. For the protagonist, sexuality itself is the trap and the most despesperate expression of his alienation.

Parra renders the protagonist's disordered, tormented state by alternating the grotesque sobriety of semimedical terminology ("localized disturbances," "pseudoerotic excitation," "incipient erections") with prosaic, commonplace objects and words ("yellow cretonne," "veal steak," "soda fountain") and evocations of sexual frustration that are closely related to the disease imagery ("vague discomforts," "a feeling of failure," "catastrophes that were so depressing to my spirit"). These indications of physical and emotional disturbance are an ironic contrast to the protagonist's feigned self-reliance and control which are described in the first section of the poem. His alleged dominion of himself is clearly an illusion based on the fact that he poses trivial questions, responds with false answers, and lives the withdrawn, isolated life which is equivalent to the intellectual abyss.

At the end of "La trampa" Parra adds a literary dimension to his exploration of the abyss that entraps the protagonist. The final words, "whose name I don't care to remember," are quoted directly from the opening sentence of Don Quixote ("In a village of La Mancha whose name I don't care to remember..."). Both Don Quixote and the antipoetic protagonist suffer from illusions which sometimes border on lunacy. The Cervantine reference suggests that the poem is a burlesque of traditional courtship, echoing Cervantes' parody of chivalry. The protagonist's rarified intellectualism and painful avoidance of consummation are contemporary versions of the courteous tradition. Both the ancient courtly ideal of amour courteois and the modern telephone are tantamount to eroticism at a distance, and to Parra's mind they constitute the sexual abyss.

"Recuerdos de juventud" presents most of the major motifs of the thematic unit, expanding the imagery, using associative references and quoting directly from the other poems. Parra has called the theme of the poem "a youthful inability to communicate,"' and in this relatively short work he concentrates the details of the protagonist's literary isolation, his sexual frustration, aimless wandering and his unsuccessful efforts to break out of the prison:

What's certain is that I kept going back and forth,
Sometimes I bumped into trees,
I bumped into beggars,
I would make my way through a forest of chairs and tables,
With my soul hanging by a thread I would watch the great leaves fall.
But all of it was useless,
I kept sinking deeper and deeper into a kind of jelly;
People would laugh at my fits of rage,
Individuals would shake in their armchairs like algae moved by the waves
And women gave me hate-filled looks
Making me cry and laugh against my will.

All of this produced a feeling of disgust,
It produced a storm of incoherent sentences,
Threats, insults, oaths that were beside the point,
It produced certain exhausting hip movements,
Those funereal dances
That left me breathless
And unable to lift my head for days
And nights on end.

I kept going back and forth, it's true,
My soul floated down the streets
Asking for help, asking for a little tenderness;
With a sheet of paper and a pencil I would go into cemeteries
Determined not to let them fool me.
I would go round and round the same subject,
I would observe things closely
Or in a fit of fury I would tear out my hair.

That's how I made my debut in the classrooms,
Like a man with a gunshot wound I dragged myself through the literary societies,
I crossed the thresholds of private houses,
With the sharp edge of my tongue I tried to communicate with the spectators:
They would read their newspapers
Or disappear behind a taxi.
Then where could I go!
By that time the store was closed;
I would think about a slice of onion that I saw at supper
And about the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.

The poems of the thematic unit establish direct connections among the abyss and women, marine images, plant growth and physical disease. These aspects of the imprisonment are extended and emphasized in "Recuerdos de juventud." In the first section Parra gives the details of the protagonist's involuntary fall into the abyss, underscoring the confusion and uncertainty which characterize the imprisonment by beginning the poem in media res. The opening phrase "What's certain" implies that the next statement is the only sure, fixed fact that the protagonist can hold on to, and the certainty is only that he "kept going back and forth." These same words also express the protagonist's aimless wandering in "La trampa" ("I would go back and forth fully conscious of my actions").

In "Recuerdos de juventud" the artifacts of daily life, merely observed in the other poems of the thematic unit, become menacing obstacles which obstruct the protagonist's path as he moves "back and forth." These commonplace objects are identified with plant growth in the image "a forest of tables and chairs," and consequently, they take on the qualities of malevolence attributed to gardens and forests in the other poems. At the same time, because of comparable wording, the line "I would make my way through a forest of chairs and tables" is related to ". . . the ship . . ./Made its way through a school of jellyfish" in "Notas de viaje." This similarity suggests a secondary identification of the images of plant growth with those of the sea, and emphasizes that both are obstacles in the protagonist's path. Moreover, the series of marine references-the verb "sinking," the use of the word "jelly" (cf. "jellyfish"), and the simile "Individuals would shake in their armchairs like algae moved by the waves" -contributes to the association of the two sets of images and reinforces the rhetorical figure of the abyss with which they are both identified.

The protagonist describes his desperate situation by stating that "all of it was useless." The phrase duplicates the line "All my precautions were useless" in "La trampa," and in both poems the protagonist envisions his anguish in the same terms: he loses his footing and falls into the sexual abyss. In "La trampa" he slides "down a kind of inclined plane," and in "Recuerdos de juventud" he sinks into "a kind of jelly," where "women would give me hate-filled looks/ Making me go up, making me go down/ Making me cry and laugh against my will." The unambiguous connotations of these lines complete the constant association of sexuality with the imprisonment; he is the victim of women insofar as they are sexual beings, and very much their puppet. His soul and body are helpless in their scornful hands, and they toy with him as he hangs "by a thread." The protagonist shows all the signs of sexual desire, but his sensations are depicted as painful and involuntary. Women, who stimulate his desire, hate him. In all probability this only reflects his hatred for them, for women are the reason he feels "vague discomfort," "agonizing localized disturbances" and "incipient erections" in "La trampa." In "Recuerdos de juventud" his symptoms are intensified, emphasizing the protagonist's identification of eroticism with disease and death and his deep hatred and fear of sexuality and everything connected with it:

All of this produced a feeling of disgust,

It produced certain exhausting hip movements,
Those funereal dances
That left me breathless
And unable to lift my head for days
And nights on end.

The protagonist is so alienated from other people that even the sexual embrace is envisioned as enclosure in an imprisoning abyss. At the same time his thought processes are reduced to "fits of rage" ("Recuerdos de juventud"), or a "state of mental prostration" and careful inquiries into the "reproduction of spiders" ("La trampa"), or the "practice of automatic writing" ("El túnel"). He is invariably considered absurd by those who surround him but refuse to have any relation with him, and his frantic, mindless busyness leads only to greater anguish and despair.

In the first section of the poem Parra describes the prison. In the second, he depicts the protagonist's abortive, failed efforts to leave the prison and participate in the human relationships of the real world. In a variation of the phrase that begins the poem, Parra reemphasizes the aimless wandering and confusion which torment his pathetic antihero ("I kept going back and forth, it's true"). The protagonist tries to clarify and understand his situation, but the only truth that he can recognize is that he does indeed wander aimlessly through his alienation, his enclosure. This is vividly presented in the image of the protagonist's soul afloat in the streets. Its movements are involuntary, and it is separated from the solid ground of the physical world. Parra's reintroduction of marine imagery underscores the helpless terrors of the enclosed, alienated life that the protagonist leads, for the sea is consistently identified with the imprisonment-as are the images of plant growth, for example-and in this poem its negative qualities even affect those outside the enclosure ("Individuals would shake in their armchairs like algae moved by the waves"). At the mercy of forces he can neither define nor overcome, the protagonist goes through the streets asking for help and tenderness. He is actually pleading for relation, for connection with people, as he does in "El peregrino." His struggle for personal contact is linked to literary efforts which should be a form of profound communication with the world, but which, like "automatic writing," only fortify and strengthen the imprisonment. His writing, like his frustrated sexuality, is associated with death; love and poetry, potentially the deepest communion with others, are only another manifestation of alienation and imprisonment during the protagonist's period of isolation. They are his "sexual and intellectual abyss." Therefore, the references to writing -his visits to the cemetery-are desperately melancholy. He turns round and round, indulges in his idiosyncratic scrutiny of minutiae and is subject to meaningless fits of rage. Keeping in mind the avant-garde writing techniques which are emblems of the imprisonment in "El túnel," Parra's description of this aspect of the "intellectual abyss" is probably aimed at the poets of the coterie-poets who are removed and isolated and whose work is abstruse, opaque and rarified. Whether Parra is recalling the period before he became the antipoet is a problematical question, but the protagonist's literary activities are clearly and intimately related to his intellecutal alienation. In the classroom, in private houses, in literary societies he suffers and is alone. Those he encounters are not students or colleagues but spectators, nonparticipants who engage in the ordinary, trivial actions characteristic of the world outside the prison. Like their counterparts in "El peregrino" whom he observes and calls to while they comb their hair and stroll through gardens, the people in "Recuerdos de juventud" read newspapers or hurriedly walk away from him. Their refusal to allow direct contact leads inevitably to the ironic conclusion of the poem with its abrasive juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the dreadful:

Then where could I go!
By that time the store was closed;
I would think about a slice of onion that I saw at supper
And about the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.

After one of his typically inane observations, the protagonist realizes that his self and his abyss have become inseparable definitions of one another. The onion, like the lettuce in "Notas de viaje," is a sign of his deranged condition. At the same time, his observations of the onion and the lettuce are a pathetic indication of the protagonist's efforts to maintain some connection-any connection-with concrete reality. His life, like the lives of those who surround him (even though they appear to possess the ability to maneuver their way through the trivial details of daily existence) is defined by suffering. Despite the protagonist's acknowledgment of shared anguishperhaps the first step toward freedom-he still sees an unbridgeable chasm between his "abyss" (his self) and all the other abysses. This gulf of isolation is identical with his sexual and intellectual alienation. Ironically, his impasse is symbolized as a closed store (he is locked out instead of being locked in) and the equation of onions and abysses is emblematic of his disjointed, distracted thought processes and his intolerable emotional state.

The terrible, victimizing females of the protagonist's imprisonment are personified and summarized in "La vfbora." (8) Leaving behind the inane frustrations, the "stupid idyll" of "La trampa," the tedious agricultural chores of "El túnel," in this poem he is utterly seduced and caught in the viper's jellied trap of sexual domination and exploitation, senseless activity and petty crime. "La víbora'' explores the worst aspects of the "sexual and intellectual abyss," and yet it is the only poem of the thematic unit that promises escape from the enclosure. The protagonist, from the depths of his lack of will, finally demands something real, something necessary and something concrete and makes the first important move toward union with the tangible, social world which is, for Parra, the sign of emancipation:

For many long years I was condemned to love a contemptible woman
To sacrifice myself for her, to suffer countless humiliations and deceptions,
To work day and night to feed and clothe her,
To carry out a few crimes, commit a few misdeameanors,
Perform petty burglaries by the light of the moon,
Forgeries of compromising documents,
For fear of being disgraced in the sight of her fascinating eyes.
When we got along we would meet in parks
And have our picture taken together steering a motorboat,
Or we would go to a nightclub
Where we would lose ourselves in shameless dancing
That went on until all hours of the morning.
For long years I lived a prisoner under the spell of that woman
Who would show up in my office completely naked
Performing unimaginable contortions
Intended to draw my poor soul into her orbit
And, above all, to get hold of my last cent.
She gave me strict orders not to have anything to do with my family.
My friends were alienated from me by means of defamatory libels
That the viper had published in a newspaper that she owned.
Deliriously passionate, she didn't give me a minute's peace,
Urgently demanding that I kiss her mouth
And immediately answer her foolish questions
Several of which had to do with eternity and the afterlife,
Subjects which made me feel terrible
And gave me buzzing in the ears, recurrent nausea, sudden fainting spells
That she knew how to take advantage of with that spirit of practicality that was characteristic of her-
She would put on her clothes without wasting any time
And leave my apartment and me in the lurch.

This situation lasted for more than five years.
Sometimes we would live together, sharing the rent,
In a round room in a high class neighborhood near the cemetery.
(Some nights we had to interrupt our honeymoon
And fight off the rats that squeezed in through the window).

The viper kept a detailed account book
Where she wrote down every penny I borrowed from her;
She didn't even let me use her toothbrush although I had given it to her myself
And she accused me of having ruined her youth:
With flashing eyes she subpoenaed me to appear in court
And pay part of what I owed her with all due speed
Because she needed that money to continue her studies.
Then I had to take to the street and live on public charity,
Sleeping on the benches in the square
Where the police often found me half dead
Among the first autumn leaves.
Fortunately that situation did not go on much longer
Because once when I was in a square again
Posing to have my picture taken
A pair of delicious feminine hands suddenly covered my eyes
While a voice that I loved asked guess-who.
You're my love, I answered calmly
Darling! she said nervously.
Let me sit on your knees one more time!
Then I could see that she now came complete with a small loincloth.
It was a memorable meeting, though full of discordant notes:
I've bought some land, not far from the slaughterhouse, she exclaimed,
I plan to build a kind of pyramid there
Where we can spend the rest of our lives.
I've finished my studies, I've passed the bar exam,
I'm pretty well off;
Let's go into some profitable business, just the two of us, my love, she added,
Let's build our nest far from the world.
That's enough nonsense, I answered, your plans make me suspicious,
Remember that at any time my real wife
Could leave us all in the most frightful poverty.
My children are grown up now, time has gone by,
I'm absolutely exhausted, let me rest for a minute,
Woman, bring me a little water,
Get me something to eat somewhere,
I'm dying of hunger,
I can't work for you anymore,
Everything is finished between us.

The poem describes the sexual abyss. Typically, the protagonist sees himself as both the prisoner and the victim of a woman whom he calls a viper with "fascinating eyes." Parra suggests the traditional belief that snakes have the power to hypnotize their victims and draw them near against their will, just as the protagonist is attracted and seduced by women into his involuntary prison. His life in the trap is filled with meaningless activity and trivia, but under the sexual spell of the viper he even commits crimes.

During the period of his imprisonment they visit parks and pose for photographs in motorboats. These references recall the plant and marine imagery which are primary signs of the abyss. The viper and her victim also engage in an erotic dance which is the first of a series of carnal allusions which move the poem onto a plane of bizarre, comic fantasy:

. . . that woman
. . . would appear in my office completely naked
Performing unimaginable contortions

The sexual ambience in the poem becomes grotesque, while at the same time the figurative language used to evoke the woman undergoes a subtle change. More vampire than serpent, she is intent upon sucking out his soul-his very life-with her incessant, peremptory demands upon his mind and body:

Deliriously passionate, she didn't give me a minute's peace,
Urgently demanding that I kiss her mouth
And immediately answer her foolish questions
Several of which had to do with eternity and the afterlife

Her metaphysical questions, echoes of the protagonist's own "spiritualist conception of the world" in "El túnel," are a passing reference to the intellectual abyss, but the viper's connection to the protagonist is mainly one of control through sexual domination. Parodically, Parra denies her the malevolent glamor of the great temptresses: she is no Lilith, no Delilah, but merely a greedy, exploitative opportunist, a physically attractive version of the grasping aunts in "El túnel."

For the protagonist, sexuality means a demented life, subjugation to involuntary desires, seduction and domination by women. Small wonder, then, that eroticism and images of disease are again associated with one another: in this sexual abyss he feels "terrible," and suffers from "buzzing in the ears, recurrent nausea, sudden fainting spells." His ghoulish liaison with the viper -that is, his imprisonment- goes on for five years. Part of the time is spent in a round room, one of the most charged and revealing references in the poem. It is associated with their awful sexuality, ironically called a "honeymoon," and with the viper's greed which is symbolized by her "account book," her careful guarding of her toothbrush and the subpoena she serves on the protagonist. The description of their life together is a serious parody that is based on grotesque exaggerations and ironic disparities between symbols and their referents. The accumulated absurdities and incongruous trivia are as shockingly comic as a surrealistic dream sequence. The rats, for example, and the cemetery, the subpoena and the account book are emblematic of the protagonist's tortured life in the sexual abyss. The most important image of imprisonment, however, is the round room itself, which represents enclosure in straightforwardly sexual, female terms. It is a clear sign of love debased, of the sexual abyss and of the terrible isolation that results from the experience of sexuality as a neverending imprisonment.

The imprisonment is terminated twice. In the first instance their separation, initiated not entirely of the protagonist's own free will, leads to the humiliating circumstance of his living on "public charity." Significantly, his initial attempt to free himself from the domination of the viper is associated with the image of plant growth: the "first leaves of autumn" recall the "great leaves" in "Recuerdos de juventud" and the "dry leaves" in "Preguntas a la hora del té." The plant imagery, consistently identified with the protagonist's alienation and enclosure, indicates that he is still imprisoned despite his break with the viper. Trapped in his own aimlessness and propensity for leaving himself to the mercy of others, he is a desperately isolated figure. His self-liberating gesture is doomed to failure; he does not yet understand freedom.

His second attempt at escape is described in the closing lines of the poem, a whirlwind of fantastic images mixed with laughably mundane details. In the final section Parra wears the mask of the trivial, the prosaic and the comic that marks his moments of greatest intensity and is the sign of the antipoetic synthesis. He describes the protagonist posing for a photograph, and then has the viper return unexpectedly, dressed in a loincloth and coyly playing "guesswho" with her former victim. This concatenation of incongruities is the ultimate parody of the protagonist's life with her, for certain elements are reiterated here that appear in the first section of the poem. They used to pose for photographs together, the viper's appearance in a loincloth in a public square repeats her naked invasions of his office, and her desire to sit in his lap suggests her "unimaginable contortions." Their meeting is indeed "memorable, although full of discordant notes." Even the viper's efforts to lure him back-a simple task, apparently, since he still thinks of her as his "love" -are a sardonic burlesque. The image of the viper dressed in a loincloth and trying to sit in the protagonist's unwilling lap is followed by her imbecilic temptation of a profitable little business-cum-love nest far from worldly cares. But behind the parodic facade are the inescapable emotional realities of her efforts to seduce him back into the prison. Her eroticism is still venal and deadly: the love nest would be a pyramid, (9) the altar of the sacrificial victim and the monument to death, near the slaughterhouse (cf. the cemetery near the round room) but far from the world, although the protagonist's major problem is how to get back into the world. The viper offers him more of the same, but worse, and the protagonist rejects her proposition with a masterfully comic bit of understatement ("your plans make me suspicious"). He turns to his own pressing material needs and refuses to be caught by her again. And here lies his hope, but a hope made melancholy by his mental and physical exhaustion. He definitively rejects the life she offers, not with the brusque youthful return to reality of "El túnel," but with the tired gesture of an old and disillusioned man who still depends on his worst enemy for sustenance.

In the poems of the thematic unit the trope of enclosure -the fact of the protagonist's isolation- is causally related to his refusal or inability to take the action necessary for self-liberation. He actually chooses his prison and the inane activities with which he fills his days. His tormented relations with the rest of the world are the result of his incapacity to confront reality without some intervening, protective barrier that symbolically represents the walls of his prison, the sides of the sexual and intellectual abyss. The barrier invariably prevents the persona from making emotional contact with other people. It is presented in several ways: as distracted thought and speech at moments of critical emotional tension, as ignoble failures in literature and philosophy, as sexuality which is experienced as joyless victimization, and as vapid, meaningless activity. These manifestations of crippled emotional life and their concomitant symptoms of physical disease are presented in a series of ironic signals that trigger the reader's contemptuous amusement despite the protagonist's pathetic suffering. They form a dissonant background to the motif of these poems -the theme of tormented consciousness- for they provoke a scornful response to the protagonist's plight.

These ironic signals consist of the extremely banal objects and actions which evoke the imprisonment, the prosaic language that the protagonist uses to describe his suffering (clichés, inane understatements or jargon), and the inept, evasive rationalizations which he offers in self-justification. Because of their essentially comic quality, all of the ironic signals are violently incongruous with the protagonist's despair, laying the foundation for the feeling of distance between the observer and the persona. This antipoetic synthesis of inconsistent sign systems (the ironic signals on the one hand, the protagonist's despair on the other) leads the reader to feel his own superiority to the protagonist's bungling ineptitude and clichéd expression. Parra emphasizes and ridicules the persona's pathetic circumstance by stressing the comic, absurd potential in even the most pitiable feelings and situations. Then, too, we seem to perceive the protagonist's emotional dilemma more clearly than he does himself. He allows himself to be trapped by obvious enemies, he permits their cruel exploitation of his mental, emotional and physical energies and he contributes to his misery with dissimulation and cowardice. In effect, he sanctions the existence of the prison and permits it to continue for years. But the reader sees himself as too clever and too insightful to be so deceived and victimized. Our sense of psychic distance from the protagonist evolves from our initial perception of the absurdities inherent in the poetic situation, and this same ironic distance accounts for the strong comic impact of the poems.

On reflection, however, the observer's feeling of superiority fades when we perceive a community of experience with the persona that is based on the profound human significance of his condition and on our recognition of that condition as our own. We too have been duped and seduced. We have been desperately uncertain, and have not known how to communicate our despair, or to whom. We too have accepted untenable situations as inevitable or inescapable for the sake of not facing the awful dangers of the unknown. We have deceived ourselves and others for the sake of emotional survival and found ourselves incoherent and distracted at crucial moments. We too have feigned talents and capacities when confronted by an apparently universal special knowledge from which we had been mysteriously excluded, deliberately provoked harmful actions and situations, called out and shouted and not been heard. In short, we too have been imprisoned in our incapacity for freedom.

This realization of the ultimate identity of reader and persona profoundly affects the structure of the poems. Our involvement with the protagonist necessarily changes our perception of the poetic statement; the irony boomerangs and flies directly toward us, for if the signs of the protagonist's isolation are failed efforts to express sexuality, artistic and intellectual obscurity, a belief in the reality of metaphysical problems and the inability to save himself from inwardly and outwardly imposed imprisonments, then regardless of clichés, jargon and trivia, his alienation is no comic matter, and we are obliged to ask which of our attitudes or postures confront the world more adequately. The despair and the foolishness of this protagonist are our own. We are he, and he is Everyman.

Parra forces the identification of protagonist and reader, and then incorporates the reader's changing perceptions and responses into the very ambience and structure of each poem. Parra's antipoetic synthesis joins the disparate elements in each work into a single vision of a mortifying human condition. In the world of antipoetry absurdity, pathos, rage, frustration and despair are an ineluctable inheritance from which no one, not even the reader, can escape.


The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra ,New York, New York University Press, 1975, Chapter III, pp.93-157.




(1) Julio Ortega, "Nicanor Parra y las paradojas," MNuP. no. 11(1967), p. 90.

(2) See Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery, Phoenix Books (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), esp. chap. IX, "The Criterion of Decorum."

(3) Charles Baudelaire, The Essence of Laughter and Other Essays, Journals and Letters, ed. Peter Quennel (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), pp. 116, 130. Subsequent references will be included in the text.

(4) Parra made this comment at a reading of his poetry held at O'Shea Intermediate School, New York City, in May, 1971. The reading will be referred to as "O'Shea."

(5) The image also brings to mind the allusion to eating in "Notas de viaje" ("I forced myself to eat, I rebelled against myself") and may be linked tangentially to the onion and lettuce that the protagonist notices in "Recuerdos de juventud" and "Notas de viaje" respectively. The vegetables are part of the disconnected, incongruous observations of trivia which are signs of his distraught state, his emotional, physical and intellectual alienation. In this sense too they are comparable to his observation of the bicycle, the bridge and the automobile in this poem.

(6) Images of plant growth are found in the other poems of the thematic unit and are closely associated with his imprisonment and, on occasion, with the ideas of a failed poetry. Examples of this figure are the agricultural tasks in "El túnel," the forest of chairs and tables in "Recuerdos de juventud," the trees in "Recuerdos de juventud," "El túnel" and "El peregrino," the garden in "La trampa" and "El peregrino," autumn leaves in "Preguntas a la hora del té," "Recuerdos de juventud" and "La víbora."

(7) He made these remarks to Homero Aridjis.

(8). Parra's comments on this poem are strangely contradictory. At O'Shea he said that it refers to "no real person," and categorically denied any connection between the figure of the viper and his first wife. However, he told Homero Aridjis that the poem is relatively autobiographical and describes his first marriage.

(9) The phrase "a kind of," used in the other poems in connection with the imprisonment, indicates that accepting her offer would be tantamount to reentering the enclosure.


SISIB - Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades - Universidad de Chile