Cipango by Tomás Harris.  Translated by Daniel Shapiro.  Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010. 321 pp.


It is a very unusual thing to see the publishing of a translation of a long, obscure and difficult volume of poetry. It can only be a labor of love between poet and translator that lead to the creation of exemplary bilingual editions of poetry. As we know, poetry neither translates nor sells well. Moreover, the case seems even more surprising upon considering the difficult situation of independent and university presses, struggling to keep afloat on a digital current while bringing necessary texts to light. These are reasons enough to applaud the publishing of Tomás Harris' Cipango in English translation. In addition, Cipango, originally published in 1992, is an ambitious, key book by a Chilean poet writing during Pinochet's dictatorship. It allows the reader to delve obliquely into the ominous atmosphere of Chile under military rule, what Enrique Lihn called the "coto de caza" in which every "citizen" could be prey.

Much like other poets writing under circumstances of strict censorship -Raúl Zurita, Elvira Hernández, Diego Maqueira, Carmen Berenguer, Clemente Riedemann, Rosabetty Muñoz, José Angel Cuevas- Harris creates shifting worlds with indirect references, allowing a subtle, coded language to emerge. Cipango, one of the Eastern territories in Columbus' diaries, provides the framework for a volume that envisions an Admiral out of time and place, returning five hundred years later for a nightmarish journey to the shores of Concepción, a city in a land under siege. Cipango explores urban marginality as a metaphor for the making of a new country. The instauration of authoritarianism and neoliberalism taking place in social and political realms is seen from the perspective of marginal subjects located away from all centers. Their multiple voices wander through an imaginary Concepción and through its impoverished neighborhoods and locales --streets and dark corners, bars, nightclubs, wastelands, hotels. Following Lihn's motto, Harris' poetry is a "situated poetry", tied to history and contingent realities. Unlike more naive forms of protest poetry, it is also committed to experimentation with conventions and language. Along with the tenuous and insistent frame of Columbus' journey told by the Admiral himself, we have several other speakers: the "I" of the poet, a lover, a generational "we", the crewmembers in Columbus' vessel, and impersonal voices of past and present chronicles. These varied voices shuffle a myriad of cultural references, spanning from Chilean poetry, XVIth Century sources, Melville, Nerval, Lautréamont, Mayakovsky, Jean Genet, B and vampire movies, 80's American film, Mesoamerican mythology, etc.  What conveys coherence and unity to these disparate intertexts is the construction of elaborate charged landscapes, presented as simulacra, representations, theaters, -in sum, dream-like projections seen and exhibited as such- which in turn reveal and multiply the conscience of speakers traveling through the nightmares of the present and history. In landscapes seen as theaters, "a voice offstage said truth is in the image / a voice offstage said truth is in the eye." (53) In this manner, Cipango commits to the uncontained displaying of images, always exhibiting them as being generated by a particular subject's eye. An atmosphere of despair and confusion also provides a common thread for sequences of poems, insisting on making a series of phantasmagoric landscapes visible. Cipango seeks out relief from terror and oppression through hallucinations, dreams, the remoteness of the past, excesses of the body, and artificial paradises. 

In a short review, it is difficult to convey the tone of a long poem with its own all-encompassing and complex vision. Let me briefly comment on a fragment from "Metempsychosis" to illustrate Cipango's intent; its need to deal with history, its uncontained imagery, its tenuous visionary call:

Although we may have related this already

it's worth the trouble of repeating

so it lingers in memory;


those were years of war to the death in Concepción

and since the city was becoming a paradise

the rites of expulsion came;


with picks and drills they tore out the paving stones

like rotten teeth,

tumors of corrupted imagination;




we were collapsing

as it was written

in the prohibition;




but we will return, from the border, when this whole city

is a border,

in its mothers, in its daughters, in its diocese;




they said blue rats nested deep

in our homes,

that blue rats will cover the city;


all those white lies

for the benefit

of the Nation. (279)


Connecting Colonial references to the present, the poem is situated both during the Conquista and in contemporary times. With the sweeping movements of its collective voice, it alludes to Concepción's history as a frontier city in the wars of attrition between Spaniards and the Mapuche, and to its place as a site of utopian leftist politics from the 60's on which was severely repressed during military rule. The poem creates a continuity in how the effects of violence are felt by social and intimate bodies in urban vacant spaces. The apocalyptic imagery recalls León Portilla's Visión de los vencidos' diction, transmuted to present-day Concepción. A foundational manu militari is destroying passions and bodies in order to establish a new, orderly Nation, a Nation based on lies. In response, the visionary language announces a partial overcoming of horror that will take place upon returning from the city's borders ("márgenes" in the Spanish). With eschatological overtones, the complex weaving of "Metempsychosis" speaks about reincarnations of history and bodies.

Daniel Shapiro's translation renders the volume's diction with precision and vivacity. The challenge of juggling the many registers and languages which compound Harris' book --everyday speech, colloquialisms, and visionary and archaic languages-- is handled with authority. Cipango's poetic voice, which Shapiro characterizes in his "Introduction" as "dark, obsessive, and rhythmic", sounds right and forceful in English. In sum, this is a welcome volume that places an important work in the hands of the English poetry reader. Also, its bilingual en face format will allow for circulation among Spanish speakers beyond its obscure 1992 and 1996 Chilean editions.

María Luisa Fischer

Hunter College, City University of New York



(1). León Portilla, Miguel, ed. Visión de los vencidos; relaciones indígenas de la conquista. Introducciones, selección y notas: Miguel Leon-Portilla; versión de textos nahuas: çngel Ma. Garibay K. México: UNAM, 1959.