Opening the Savage Detectives

by zunguzungu

If you like the old joke that life is just the way that DNA make more DNA — and I do like that old joke — then maybe it would be fair to observe that Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives sees poetry mainly as the way poets make more poets. Which is to say, there’s a stunning absence at the center of this book about poets talking about poetry: poetry itself.

I don’t mean, of course, that there is no poetry in it — there is some — but take, for example, this bit of description from pages 6 and 7:

“The end of class was surprising. Alamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn’t need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There’s a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it’s possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I’d ever heard. Then Arturo Belano got up and said that they were looking for poets who would like to contribute to the magazine that the visceral realists were putting out. Everybody wished they could volunteer, but after the fight they felt sheepish and no one said a thing. When the workshop ended (later than usual), I went with Lima and Belano to the bus stop. It was too late. There were no more buses, so we decided to take a pesero together to Reforma, and from there we walked to a bar on Calle Bucareli, where we sat until very late, talking about poetry.”

The lines “reading the best poem I’d ever heard” and “talking about poetry” leap out at me in their unfinishedness. What was said? What made the poem so good? And compare the incredible deft sensitivity that the novel brings to bear on the ways people (who happen to be poets) interact with other people (who happen to be poets) to foreclosures like this; there’s a world in the paragraph, a rich sketched-out world of human sociality for which “poetry” is more or less the incidental catalyst. The entire book seems to follow that pattern, circling endlessly round and around its principle characters, without ever settling on the thing that brings them together, or rather without the thing they use to bring themselves together ever becoming a settled thing.

I’m still thinking this through; I’m not finished with the book, and a lot is still fairly opaque to me. But the poetry of this novel is a very different thing than the monuments of a certain literary tradition; the poems written by these people seem so fundamentally occasional that the idea of a completed corpus — a poetic body to represent the living one — is not merely absent, but basically refuted. One writes poetry, as someone for N+1 put it, because “[a]t one point you started and now you can’t stop; it’s become a habit and an identity.” But I wonder if this might be no more a cause for despair than is our exploitation by our DNA for its own selfish purposes. After all, Lima’s might be the best poem Juan has ever heard, but he will live to hear more and better ones, and maybe even write them, too.