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Off Script: Unemployed Poems

Unemployed Poems, Raúl Hernandez trans. John Burns. Cardboard House Press, 2018.

How does life change when one is unemployed? Long term projects are initiated, or neglected works are resumed. You lose a certain social circle, perhaps gain another. You count ants and cross the street again and again; you learn aloneness. You drink alcohol; you learn to forget yourself. You photograph butterflies; you learn to look closely. You drink mate; you learn to wait. But most importantly, through so much thinking, so many rambling walks and bus rides around the city, you develop both a hypersensory awareness to the outside world and a hypersemantic sensibility to language. The script of job and routine have been left at the office. What is left? What is beginning?

The Unemployed Poems [Poemas cesantes] of Chilean poet Raúl Hernández, originally published in 2005 and reedited by Pez Espiral in 2016, might at first seem slight. Yet they are in reality dissolving into a state of non-poetry, wondrous images along the path toward a stripping away of certainties, a knowledge that in the extreme precision of its use of words reaches toward a reality beyond them. The poems take the form of images sketched briefly, without analysis or emotion, and the tone has the same cool detachedness as the prose of a “help wanted” ad. But the accumulation produces its own effect. This kind of noticing of the surroundings is only possible with free time, and everything enters into another time scale. A humor is mingled with the humiliation, and the world of unemployment comes to seem a world of absurdity, self-delusion, idleness, petty crime and minor joys.

Wandering about, the poet finds himself in a world with its own necessities, which may not pay but are still important i.e. that of writing things down before they are forgotten. The meaning of words like “nothing” and “countless” comes to seem expansive, suggesting a value beyond the quantifiable. One feels closer to an animal state, like a drowsing pub dog or teenager belting Spinetta on the beach. With the imagination inflamed, one projects oneself into the lives of others. A brief reference to a woman in two poems suggests that the poet has not been severed from his job alone, possibly amplifying his dissociation and sense of sudden nakedness in the world. Whatever the case, the world is suddenly seen afresh.

A poem in the collection is dedicated to Bolaño. Here one remembers the business card that Bolaño handed out to acquaintances, which read “poeta y vago”, poet and slacker. From his output, not to mention the events in which he participated, we know that Bolaño was not really a slacker. All the same, it is the similarity of the poet and the slacker that makes us laugh. A “vago” [slacker] is not the same as someone “cesante” [unemployed], of course. In Ruíz’s book, the implication is that this is a temporary situation, a between-state. This is what gives the poems the particular intensity of their changing states, their “minute of heat”. Yet the spirit of Bolaño does breathe through them. The value sought in these poems is not that of making money. The ways of registering happiness and success portrayed here are not quantifiable. These simple actions only find meaning as poems.

In this bilingual edition, another round of editing might have benefited the translation. “Paisaje” and “pasaje” are confused, resulting in the awkward “landscapeless summer” rather than a summer without bus tickets, unaffordable for someone out of work. “Gypsy” is misspelled, “beaches” becomes “beach”, a reference to teargas bombs drops the word “bombs”, “get interrupted” doesn’t sound quite like English, and a line that could have translated as “the strawberry borgoña prepared by the woman with the white blouse and swaying walk” is rendered “the strawberry borgoña that the white-bloused woman prepares spinning shapes while she moves”.

This said, looking at the text holistically, the translation has done well to capture the casual tone of these deceptively simple poems. A translator’s note at the end both illuminates the text and supplies some conceptual jokes: “As a translator, I have tried to reproduce that generosity, that careful cresting of the language between lyrical nostalgia and the place where words are inadequate to express the subtleties of early 21st century city life. That’s quite a bit of labor to ask of some unemployed verses. I hope you enjoy putting these poems to work.”

About halfway through, the previously nameless poems begin to have titles. This set of poems seems more miscellaneous, less obviously linked to the fact of being unemployed, and somewhat distanced from the lyrical “I” that came before. It is almost as if another book has begun to emerge from the first, a sort of biography of the neighborhood with its eccentric characters and scenes of daily life. One might well imagine that this is the work that the unemployed poet wrote in his free time. If so, after this brief flight he circles back in the last poem “Unemployed” to his existential theme, through a glancing reference to looking at second-hand clothing and antiques in a Las Cruces church, on a Tuesday.



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