Love Breaks/Mal de Amor (edición bilingüe inglés-castellano), de Oscar Hahn

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Ed. Yvette E. Miller, 1991. Size 22 x 14,5 cm. Translated by James Hoggard. Signed by the author. State: Used, excellent (with the damaged spine at the bottom). 64 pages

When Mal de amor was first published in 1981, in Santiago, it seemed that Oscar Hahn had begun using his own experience more directly than in his previous major volume, Arte de morir (Buenos Aires, 1977; trans. The Art of Dying, 1988), a book that quickly elicited international attention. Characterized by an unrelieved bleakness of tone, one so severe and darkly explosive that it threatened to crush the lyrical impulse, The Art of Dying gave powerful voice to what seemed like Hahn’s tortured sense of historical estrangement. Ironically, it also showed the obliqueness of his voice. Nightmarish vision
was often presented in regular, traditionally framed stanzas that depicted seemingly extra-personal frames of reference.

Then in what at first seemed a more limpid and directly personal mode, Hahn appeared to modify his mythic sense of distance in his subsequent volume, Mal de amor, presented here in translation as Love Breaks.

The subject matter in the more recent book is erotic, both in terms of the sexual and the more general meaning of the term: the urge for bonding with an Other who simultaneously touches one’s mind and flesh. Reading Hahn’s sequence of poems, however, we begin to notice the absence of the beloved. There are vivid memories of connection with her, but those memories are often spurred by the speaker’s sudden and solitary identification with ordinary objects: bedsheets, towels, dining table, fishbowl, empty parking slots, and rooms that seem forlorn. The speaker keeps being thrown back on himself. His drive toward intimacy is never satisfied. But
why? What has caused his sense of loss? In spite of periodically violent airs, there is no intimation of rejection, no image of unrequited love. Again and again, though, we see suggestions, beginning even with the book’s dedication, that an important dimension of the relationship is forbidden: “To my beautiful enemy whose name cannot be written here without scandal”. In “At One
My Fortune, At Two Your Watch”, for example, lyrical images of the fantastic turn fractious:

at three a hotel in flames left
at four you and I left making love
at five a man with a pistol left
at six a shot and you woke up


Now noon strikes
and I hold in my arms the body of all my crimes

That jagged attitude is even more apparent in “Good Night Dear”, where the speaker says:

May you dream with demons
and white cockroaches

and may you see eye-sockets
of death looking at you
from my eyes in flames

The relationship between the two seems both threatened and threatening, even illicit, and in a heart-breaking way it is.

The speaker is not mindlessly bitter, and the absent woman is neither fickle nor some other man’s wife or mistress. But who is she, and what is the meaning of the lovers’ estrangement? Throughout his career Hahn has been too poetically careful for us to assume he is simply writing here an open-ended drama whose meaning must be left to conjecture. So we reconsider the work at large. Reflecting on the textures and ideas in the collection, we begin to find answers in metaphors, in analogies, in figures obliquely joining the fragmented world’s parts. And the absent woman, we come to see, can be read as Hahn’s own lost country, Chile. His pain is the pain of one in exile. Recognizing that, we begin to see how, moving beyond autobiography, these poems fit into the Western tradition. We recall the horror with which the ancient Greeks spoke of homelessness. We notice that morning after morning, despite his wondrous adventures, Odysseus knelt at the edge of the sea and wept for home. We also remember Jacob Bronowski identifying civilization
with geographical stability, a centering in place. For counterpoint, we also see, in our own world, images of frenzy and confusion coming from people who find themselves rootless. Their senses deranged, their voices turn shrill and incoherent then fall into pitifully weak murmurs. Everything, including lyrical expression, becomes political; and many voices crack at the strain or, mad to escape the dissembling chaos, lunge for simplistic options before drowning in sentimentality. Some, though, manage to maintain coherence. They are the ones who write what tradition calls the brave songs.

Skepticism and restraint help keep a voice measured and clear, and though he is too open to wonder and grief to be called skeptical, Hahn has indeed chosen restraint to guide the tones of his voice. Ironically, while assuring a sense of aesthetic distance, the tension in restraint keeps alive the energizing possibilities of lyrical expression. We begin to see then that because the world is so splintered, coordination is as necessary as endurance for one to achieve more than meager survival. In Love Breaks, as in Hahn’s previous work, personal concerns are transformed into meditative affirmations of mystery. The
closure of “Phantom Shaped Like A Pillowcase” provides an example: “her lips began to move / and I heard the clear / crystalline / silence”. His suggestive, even allusive, sense of phrasing is also seen in a poem like “Phantom in The Form Of A Shirt” when the speaker turns confession into admonishment: “though you scrape and brush and rub / you can’t wash the blood off my side”.

Reversals of fortune, though, are facts of life.

One month after Mal de amor was first published in Santiago, in the fall of 1981, the government banned it, making it apparently the first book of poems taken hostage by the post-Allende military junta of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Reportedly no reason was given when books were snatched from libraries and bookstores, and Hahn was not there to protest the rape. He was in the U.S.
where he had been studying and teaching. Then five years after the ban, the book was republished in Chile by Ediciones Ganymedes, the same house that had first issued it. The contents of the two editions were the same except for two poems added to the later text: Partitura (“Musical Score”) and Televidente (“Watching TV”). The text here follows the second edition but with Hahn’s permission includes three additional poems: “Consumer Society” (Sociedad de consumo), “Candlelight Dinner”
(Cena íntima), and “Playing With Fire” (Jugando con fuego).

The love evoked in Love Breaks/Mal de amor is not idealized, and the country from which Hahn was estranged is not an abstraction but a portion of earth, an embodiment of spirit demanding justice and wholeness the fullness of relationship. The book records the serious attention paid to that fact by one who is both insider and outsider. Because of that double perspective and the
layered quality of Hahn’s language, individual experience becomes associated here with universal concerns. Psychological and physical fragmentations have become commonplace, and terrorism, we come to see, has even turned domestic life political. Intimations of that are clearly seen in the metaphors of romantic crisis described in Love Breaks, a crisply wrought collection whose subtleties underscore Hahn’s reputation as a major voice of the fantastic.

Nothing comes to stasis. Across the world people continue to disappear, and sometimes only parts of them are found. There are also cries to destroy books, and exhortations and bribes to murder authors. Anger turns hysterical and fear makes one yearn for havens of oblivion. Limbless and headless corpses clot ditches and undergrowth, and across the world printed speech becomes little mounds of ash. Out of weariness, fright, and confusion, potentially elegant voices go mute, but the urge for deep harmony remains; and the force of the will aids that longing. One refuses to surrender. After all, after repeated efforts a mysterious gift of voice may make troubled expression sing, may even make it redemptive.

The misfortune referred to in the title of Hahn’s book does not come from adolescent pining but from the nausea that is expressive, Nietzsche reminded us, of powerlessness and estrangement. Refusing the option to yield to the nihilism of despair, Hahn keeps the voice of his poems lively but measured. Without that cautionary sense of control, without that affirmation of continued engagement, gibberish and sentimentality would rise; and when they do, art and morality die.

Although the world has not given Oscar Hahn -and many others of his time- grace and coherence, he has not released himself to the nefarious temptations of fanatical rage. Instead, the idiom of his battle finds its point of reference in that most personal image of unity: erotic love: yin and yang bonding to make the world, bonding to allow individual concerns to become transcendent. In
Love Breaks, however, that urge remains a longing, the ache that Albert Camus called “nostalgia for order”. But we should also remember that that same force is the one that drives us toward coherence of thought, grace of expression, and the mysteries of art.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Translator’s Preface
Aerolito
Meteorite
Bárbara azul
Blue Barbarian
Corazón mío
My Heart
Paisaje ocular
Ocular Landscape
A mi bella enemiga
To My Beautiful Enemy
Sociedad de consumo
Consumer Society
A la una mi fortuna, a las dos tu reloj
At One My Fortune, At Two Your Watch
Misterio gozoso
Joyful Mystery
Partitura
Musical Score
Cuerpo de todas mis sombras
Body Of All My Shadows
El reposo del guerrero
The Warrior’s Rest
Escrito con tiza
Written With Chalk
Cena íntima
Candlelight Dinner
Jugando con fuego
Playing With Fire
Sobre los hemisferios
Over The Hemispheres
Ningún lugar está aquí o está ahí
Places Are Neither Here Nor There
Ecología del espíritu
Spirit’s Ecology
Nacimiento del fantasma
Birth Of The Phantom
Rocío de los prados
Field-Drizzle
Fantasma en forma de funda
Phantom Shaped Like A Pillowcase
Buenas noches hermosa
Good Night Dear
Con pasión sin compasión
With Passion Without Compassion
Fantasma en forma de camisa
Phantom in The Form Of A Shirt
Algo
Something
El centro del dormitorio
The Center OfThe Bedroom
Sábana de arriba
Topsheet
Pequeños fantasmas
Little Phantoms
Cometa
Comet
Eso sería todo
That Will Be All
Y ahora qué?
And Now What?
En la vía pública
On The Street
Televidente
Watching TV
Afterword: Oscar Hahn and the Phantoms of Eros