Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Once Poemas by Juan Garrido Salgado

Once Poemas, Septiembre 1973
By Juan Garrido Salgado
Translated by Stuart Cooke

Picaro Press
ISBN 978-1-920957-39-1
Warners Bay, 2007
Order Copies from www.picaropress.com





Once Poemas, Septiembre 1973 (Eleven Poems, September 1973) reads like a narrative of collected single poems. Though not a verse novel, it tells the inside story of a Superpower’s super power over a democratic nation. It is not a cozy read and does not induce smiles. But it is a well written vision of a time the author does not wish us to forget and in that, it is important and it is passionate and that is enough.

It was all terror in September,
no peace in the cemeteries.
The resistance became the shadows
and the light against a war never declared.     
(7) “Made in the USA”

For most people, September 11 is a date that brings to mind New York City, terrorist attacks in the form of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, people jumping from those buildings as they burned to the ground. Lesser known in history, it is also the date of the Chilean coup d-etat.

With the assistance of the United States of America, Augusto Pinochet’s military killed then President Salvador Allende and created a more ‘democratic’ Chile, one in which over a hundred thousand suspected leftist dissidents would be arrested and an estimated 3,000 would ‘disappear’ or be murdered. Torture was commonplace and censorship became a way of life. Poet Juan Garrido Salgado was one of those dissidents who not only succumbed to the censoring of his poetry, but also to imprisonment and torture. His latest collection is a reminder to his readers that September 11 was a dreadful date long before 2001.

The collection begins with a poem entitled ‘Made in the USA’:

Our fiesta for socialism 
awoke a child of fear in the North. 
Chile, after all, is a long, narrow playground 
where the transnationals can frolic freely 
in the free market.


The collection comes full circle as it closes with a poem simply titled ‘September 11, 1973’, in which the words ‘Made in the USA’ stand alone between each stanza, the repetition a lamentable refrain:

Santiago, September 11, 1973, 
was a dark spring 
of terror, flames and fumes. 
Two jets 
flew like the evil wings of death. 

Made in the USA.
Soldiers in the streets formed part 
of a scaffold of violence from the sky, 
rivers of blood ran through our mouths.
Made in the USA.


I remember hearing Salgado read both of those poems only months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and I remember feeling appalled with his timing (though I had been in Australia for two years, I am a native to America and in many ways felt emotionally raw and quick to defend my country after the 9-11-01 attacks). In hindsight, I see that the timing could not have been more ideal for Salgado. His emotions, after twenty-eight years, were also raw and his need to defend his country was not up for debate. I particularly remember the fervor with which Salgado read the refrain ‘Made in the USA’, as if he could spit and cry all at once.

What lies between the pages of those two poems are nine other poems depicting the public history of Chile’s darkest days, told by a voice who claims the misery as only one personally affected can. There are instances of hope among the painful shadows, though these glimpses are often hidden and undervalued as the lingering effect is ultimately horrific. In such cases common metaphors of flight, for instance, are confused between violence and freedom, as birds take on the form of heavy airplanes and the ethereal howls of tortured men, while at the same time signifying the dreams of those who struggle against the regime. More straightforward is a second image of fire, and there is no uncertainty here. The consequences of fire are a reliable evil: the burning of humans, books, beds, souls; the burning of verses of poems, photographs of the living, the guitar of famous folk singer Victor Jara just before his death; the burning of socialism; the burning of spring; coals in the heart; coals on the skin. And in each written memory ablaze, it is impossible to disassociate Salgado from the anguish. We become his witnesses and his pupils, though he never begs our pity.

Everything was pain in September, 
the leaves condemned to cruelty 
with the words of the dictator: 
'Not a single leaf moves in this country if I do not move it.'
(11) "The Dictator's Autumn"

To add to the authenticity of the collection, the left pages contain the original poem, written in Spanish, while the right holds the English version, translated by Stuart Cooke. Salgado is himself a translator (he translated MTC Cronin’s Talking to Neruda’s Questions for Chile’s Safo Press), though the difficulty in translating one’s own life perhaps could have been a bit overwhelming. To the eyes of a reviewer who is fairly competent with the basics of Spanish, the English verse does not compare with its Spanish companion; though that is not a problem with the translation but more so with the flow of the Spanish language and the choppiness of the English. However, even if one cannot read Spanish, it is important to have the two poems side by side. Translation here can be seen to be as much about the validity of the emotion (as a poet who has not only lost his country but his language and refuses to let go of its substance) as it is about the vernacular. What jumps out for me with the side-by-side juxtaposition of the single poem in two languages is the substantiation of an identity lost.

soy todo el hombre 
en llamas por quién sabe quién. 
Secundos preciosos para este poema 
que escribo, 
que duele… 
(22) "Soy todo el hombre el hombre herido por quién sabe quién"

then the companion piece…

I am every man, 
burning for who knows who. 
Precious seconds for this poem I'm writing. 
What pain…
(23) "I am every man, the man wounded by who knows who"


This is Salgado’s fourth collection of poetry and it is no surprise that the subject matter has not veered too far from centre. If writers tend to work out their demons through words, then I expect this will not be the last reference made to political imprisonment by the poet. The strength of Once Poemas is found in the delicate mixture of the factual and the imagistic – which readers will recognise as true fodder for verse. Emotion melds together with the concrete and Salgado has managed to create a very political, very personal collection that is neither irate nor sentimental. Its directness is alarming; its use of metaphor soothing. I say it is an ardent collection, a significant work of great historical weight. Buy it, read it, place it in your bookshelf for all to see and when friends and family come around, pass it onto them. Let others know of the struggle and the pain of an earlier September 11 and of the exquisiteness of a once silenced writer set free to sing.