Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Roberto Bolaño is a character in a Robert Louis Stevenson story

This isn't much of a poem, but stay with me for a minute, if you don't mind:

Mr. Wiltshire (El señor Wiltshire)

It's all over, says the voice in the dream, and now you're the reflection
of that guy Wiltshire, copra merchant in the South Seas,
the white man who married Uma, had lots of kids,
the one who killed Case and never went back to England,
you're like the cripple turned into a hero by love:
you'll never return to your homeland (but which is your homeland?)
you'll never be a wise man, come on, not even a man
who's reasonably intelligent, but love and your blood
made you take a step, uncertain but necessary, in the middle
of the night, and the love that guided that step is what saves you.

This poem inhabits page 81 of The Romantic Dogs (2008), a Roberto Bolaño poetry selection translated by Chris Knight.  I have the terrible feeling that the poems in the book were chosen because they contained, or might contain, clues to Bolaño's big books.  See, for example, the many the poems employing the word "detective" - "I dreamt of frozen detectives, Latin American detectives," etc.  I was naïvely hoping they would be good poems.  A back cover blurb, written by someone who has apparently read no poetry written after 1950, tells me "His poetic voice is like no other."

Regardless.  Did everybody identify the literary work at the base of this poem?  Would I have been able to identify it, or have the slightest idea what was going on, six weeks ago?  No!  Lines two through five are an accurate if plain summary of "The Beach of Falesá" (1893), my favorite Robert Louis Stevenson story.  Favorite as of six weeks ago, when I read through all of Stevenson's stories.

Is there a single hint in that poem, for the reader who has not read the story, or (I'm thinking ahead), for the reader who has read it, and even wrote a blog post about it, but whose memory is not so good?  I'm imagining that I'd read the poem a year from now, and how agonizing the "this seems so familiar" sense would be.

I have no point here, except that I got a kick out of recognizing the source of this poem, even if it was merely by chance.  I do wonder, though, how many other poems in this little book are built on works that I have never read or never heard of, or if it matters, or why it would.


  1. Wonderful sleuthing. There you go. That's how it works. Using your literary amateur reading super powers for good, rather than idly, doing nothing, prepping sideways for Ruskin's economics. Nice how the Tolstoy didn't make you lose track of the Stevenson. Not that I have any idea why you're reading Bolano, whoever he might be.

  2. I love it when that happens: you're reading a literary work and all of a sudden there's this great allusion to another literary work! That happened to me when reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion - all of a sudden there was this great Ezra Pound phrase embedded in an exciting part of the narrative.

  3. Am curious about your overall feeling on Bolano...I've read one of his novels so far, am debating a great big dive into all of his work, but the extraodinary amount of hype around him makes me hesitate. Thoughts?

  4. Every time I get an allusion, especially one you wouldn't expect someone, on average, to get, my inside person celebrates. Then she gets depressed about how many times this isn't happening, and how it's impossible to even know because we don't know what we don't know. Just one of those nagging facts of life for me. Does the joy of sometimes getting it make the readerly life worth living? Well, I'm still reading.

    Like verbivore, I'm debating a big dive, after 2666. Better to say I'm anticipating, rather than debating. But 2666 has put me in the mind of the young pharmacist, who only wants the tiny perfect jewels for a while, not the big baggy monsters. I am looking forward to his shorter work. Though, honestly, I may skip these poems. The Stevenson bit is fun, but overall I'm not wowed.

  5. The issue here, the more I think about it, is: What on earth would the poem mean to anyone who does not get the reference? Does it function at all? Is there anything to the poem other than the allusion?

    What do I think of Bolaño? I've read four books now (but neither of the big ones), and am convinced that he's the real thing. But he is extremely slippery, a prankster, which makes me nervous about saying to much (the joke might be on me).

    I'm not sure what readers not deeply interested in Modernist poetry, or, really, the meaning of Modernism, are getting out of him. In some ways, he seems quite narrow. But he's audacious, and kicks against the pricks.

    Of the books I've read, By Night in Chile, might be a good place to start. The narrator is doubly suspicious, a poet and a critic. Shudder.

    nicole, yes - non-completists, skip the poems, or this book. They're low cost, though - I'll bet, removing the Spanish and the white space, that there's not 20 pages of text in The Romantic Dogs.

    zhiv - I can do more than one thing at a time! Ya got your French poetry, your Scotch novels, your this, your that. The Hawthorne Project is moving again. Lotsa good stuff.

  6. Hmm...I know I will read all of Bolano (probably not the poetry) at some point, maybe even starting this year. I liked Distant Star, liked the imagery, the menace, the dark humor, some of the absurdism, so I know that there is more of that waiting for me.

  7. verbivore, excellent. Eager to hear about what you find.