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New Book of Roberto Bolaño’s Poetry Imminent

By Harriet Staff


A collection of Roberto Bolaño’s poetry, translated by Laura Healy, is *almost* available, courtesy of New Directions. The collection, clocking in at a hefty 835 pages, is titled The Unknown University and it contains all of Bolaño’s poetic work.

In this recent review by Dwight Garner, published in the NYTimes, Garner writes that the collected is a bittersweet glimpse into the author’s unbridled excitement with language:

Bolaño died too young, of liver disease, at 50. Before his death he had time to begin compiling this volume and to give it its title. He also had time to compose a few wily and emotion-filled late poems, some of them addressed to his very young son. A lovely one begins:

Read the old poets, my son
and you won’t regret it
Between the cobwebs and rotten wood
of ships stranded in Purgatory
that’s where they are
ridiculous and heroic!

The bulk of the poems in “The Unknown University” were written when Bolaño was in his 20s, however, and very often they read like juvenilia — the unrhymed free verse of a man who was equal parts poet and poet manqué, a word-drunk literary drifter still finding his voice. Many are autobiographical, and, like his fiction, they are filled with starving, wandering, jousting, sex-mad, aggrieved, ego-dented poets and artists.

There are moments of bliss. Bolaño had one of 20th-century literature’s great dirty minds, and many of this volume’s best lines are unpublishable here. The words of a pimp, from a poem titled “Big Silver Waves,” can stand in for these bits: “wham bam wham bam times infinity.”

Just as often, he was a deep romantic. “At 4 a.m. old photographs of Lisa/between the pages of a science-fiction novel,” he writes. In a poem called “Hope” he declares, “I thank heaven for having made love/to the women I’ve cared about.” He tended to walk around lovesick. One poem ends with this line: “Crack, goes your heart.”

Poverty is an abiding theme. “The gods haven’t granted you money/but they’ve granted you strange whims,” he writes in an untitled poem. In another he utters: “Money like the umbilical cord that connects you to girls and the landscape./Money that I’ll never have and that by exclusion makes me a hermit, the protagonist who suddenly goes pale in the desert.”

As always, he is good on writing and the writing life. In a poem called “There Are No Rules,” he declares: “Tell that stupid Arnold Bennett that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels.” This poem ends, hilariously, with the following word in parentheses: “Applause.”

Read more about The Unknown University at NYT. Get in the cue to buy your copy from New Directions here: publication date’s July 11th!

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.