I always blanch when someone tells me—and always so assuredly, it seems—“ I just don’t really like poetry.” It’s more people, more otherwise avid readers than I would like to think.
It’s a matter of personal choice, sure; as much as I try to like reading philosophy I can’t say I do. But these people who “don’t really like poetry” seem to see it as an art form that’s too indulgent or selfish or extraneous; they feel they can relate more to characters in storylines. I, on the other hand, turn to poetry when I need something to relate to. I was feeling that need when I passed Bolaño’s The Romantic Dogs in a window; I was heartachin’, broke, and a line from a poet I hadn’t read in years kept crossing my mind: “All secrets of past tense have just come my way/ but I still don’t know what I’m going to do next.”1 Having adored (worshipped, really) 2666, I knew Bolaño’s poetry was exactly what I needed to do next.
I devoured it, reread it, and read my favorites to the friends whom I knew would appreciate them, and especially to those whom would think they wouldn’t.
A couple things strike me about the heart of The Romantic Dogs, the first being its uncertainty and its contentment to sit in uncertainty. Perhaps uncertainty is not the best word. Rather, it’s a remarkable and extreme comfort with which Bolaño’s poetry deals with alternatives. In fact, it breathes in alternatives, the majority of poems being rife with “or,” “and,” “could,” “maybe,” “instead,” etc. In a poem entitled “In The Reading Room of Hell,” the author teases, “When everything finally seems clearer/ and each instant is better and less important.”
The poems in this collection are a tribute to impermanence—hotel rooms with sad women named Lupe and Francesca, motorcycles, “the late night subway and Chinese cafes”—and not in that hackneyed, glorified wanderlust-ian sense I’ve grown so tired of. Bolaño does not for a moment purport that wandering is the answer, or that he is not, everyday, every poem, on a search for home.
Despite the poems’ tendency towards ifs and ands, the stuttering brain’s fixation on an endless series of parallel endings, on ex-lovers and days too-well remembered, there is that of which the poet is certain, one being courage: “…Perhaps the only thing that’s real, palpable even/ in tears/ And goodbyes.” While he hesitates to settle on moments of sweetness, always presenting them in conjunction with their darker shadows, it’s clear he is not a cynic: “…at last my soul came upon my heart./ It was sick, it’s true, but it was alive.”
Bolaño shares the quality of my most beloved writers: that they had no choice, that they put these words on paper because they had to, because they were absolutely overflowing. I loved David Foster Wallace because he should have been a mathematician, but his heart said otherwise. Bolaño, likewise, seemed to realize that life as an artist was not his choice but his obligation—“I was only fit for chemistry, for chemistry alone/ but I wished to be a vagabond”—and I’m so very glad he did.
Upon reading him my favorite poem from the collection (X Rays), my friend Casey, who doesn’t read poetry, sat back, thought, gestured to the book, and said angrily “Give me that.”
1. Richard Brautigan, “All Secrets of Past Tense Have Just Come My Way”↩