“Here I Conjure”: A Review of The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile by Christian Formoso

Seated next to me on a plane once, I met a man from New Zealand. As we chatted he mentioned that “When you get off the islands, you tend to stay away a long time.” Reading The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile, I thought of him. Living in our Northern Hemisphere-centric world where so many of the centers of cultural, economic, and political power reside, we can tend to overlook the sense of isolation that our more geographically far-flung and isolated brothers and sisters might feel. The poet Christian Formoso, whose epic poem, The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile, has now been translated into English by Terry Hermsen and Sydney Tammarine in a lovely bilingual edition from Green Fish Press, has grown up in one of those far-flung places, Punta Arenas, Chile, located near the tip of South America, on the Straits of Magellan, a city in distance that is much closer to Antarctica than it is to Santiago, the Chilean capital. Formoso’s is a book that revels in such isolation, in such vast distances from more populated outposts. It makes up a large component of the jet fuel that powers his vision, which resides and revels in the spaces of

an “equivalent distance between weeping and wailing, a
distance midway over the water and the field, of the silence
that cracks open the coffin of your name, a distance between
your eyes and the eyes of your eyes, a starry distance beneath
a starry sky, where you hair is full of white stars, like insects
that slide in and consume.
— from “Weeping and Wailing Assume an Equivalent Distance”

Of course, being born and raised in Chile, Formoso invites comparisons with his fellow countryman, and the great epic that he wrote, Canto General. But unlike the cosmopolitan Neruda, Formoso centers his epic not on the vast sweep of the new world, but on a particular country, on a particular place on the outskirts of that country. It begins referencing Alonso de Ercilla’s La Araucana, published in 1589, the oldest volume of poetry in Spanish that mentions Chile, then intertwines stories and legends from the indigenes people who lived around the tip of South American with those of the earliest Spanish explorers and settlers of the region, and comes round to portray the lives of some of those who suffered under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and of those survivors who have failed to share in the fruits of Chile’s entry into the more globalized economy of our own time. But always it remains in the area in and around Punto Arenas, and in those voices domiciled in and around its most beautiful cemetery.

No, rather than Neruda, in many ways Formoso’s epic is more reminiscent to the work of that precocious girl who was born over a century previous to him, who grew up in a village in Massachusetts and after a time rarely left her father’s house. Though the polyvocal, multivalent poems of The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile take much different turns than the work of Dickinson, like her, Formoso’s imagination also seems to need to be nurtured in isolation, in the local, and in the faraway but fierce gaze of the outsider. Yet the drive and power and beauty of this book, sometimes in free verse and sometimes in prose poems, but always in a forceful lyricism, is to try to bridge those distances, to try to forge connections between those in the present and to those in the past. It reaches beyond our temporal empires to embrace an UR-sense of time, timeless time, time rooted in place, that most beautiful cemetery, but yet reaches far beyond the straits and borders of its making. One of its voices is “The Tear of Kooch,” a character based on a creation myth from the Tehuelche, the indigenes people who inhabited Tierra del Fuego before the Spanish arrived. The spells of his words comprise a vision that rise beyond the inevitable griefs that consume us in the here and now, and attempt to rise into a blessed world both of what is possible and what is not:

Before you I did not know the kiss of distance,
nor the distance I now reside in, your time immemorial.
Yesterday is what time sowed over the top of me before you....
my tears [supply] the layers of the possible,...
my eyes, the language of lost grief for
the truth, the hymns too far off to be deciphered.
I tell you I love you even though I only see your death...

— “The Tear of Kooch Which Created The Most Beautiful Cemetery In Chile”

Dreams play a big part in this book. The book opens with dreams. The first section of the book, comprising eighteen poems, is called, “In the Middle of the Strait the Dream of the Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile,” and the first poem is called “Sails unfurled by the Shipwreck and the Dream.” The second section is called “First Stones of the Dream.” And the book ends on dreaming. The final section is called, “The Mirror Dreams Full Speed Ahead.” Dreams are the mechanisms which forge the links of the connections between a time past and a time present and the distances of place. For Formoso, dreams are where we dwell in an equalitarian vision, “dreaming the same dream as the rivers” (“Apocryphal Extract of “La Araucuna” – by which he announces the most beautiful cemetery in Chile –“). Like the Straits of Magellan, dreams are the paths of connection that seek to touch that which is apart.

And like a dream, Formoso’s book resists linearity. Like a dream, its beginning and ending seems amorphous. The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile is a pastiche, a tapestry, a collage of lyric visions. As such, it seems to resist being read linearly from beginning to end. On the contrary, it invites one to dip into it at intervals. The more I read, the longer I dwelled in its world of shipwrecks and voices from history and myth and from our contemporary world, the more I drifted, the more I felt obliged to skip around, to open poems at random and revel in them individually. Yet in spite of this somewhat fractured reader’s experience, one wonders, at least I did, as Formoso was wandering through the forest of ghostly voices that animates his poem, how he was able to maintain such a mastery and control of time and image, and such a unity of tone throughout this dreamscape, this visionary lament of a book.

It is the work of the poet, or at least one of her jobs, to give voice to those whose voice has been taken away, voices of those lost both in history past and history present. The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile is not only an epic book of farewell and loss, it is a resurrection from loss, a welcome, an exhortation to continue in spite of loss, written by a poet who lives at the far tip of the world. It songs resonate as a lyric conjuration of reconciliation that endure long after its last notes have sounded:

After a million years of dreaming, we know
That Which We Say and That Which We Call.
Both say they have only a broken boat....
And yet we get on anyway.

— from “Now the Mirror Dreams Full Speed Ahead”

S.D. Lishan is an Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University. His book of poetry, Body Tapestries (Dream Horse Press), was awarded the Orphic Prize in Poetry. His poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Measure, Arts & Letters, Kenyon Review, Literati Quarterly, In Posse Review, New England Review, Boulevard, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Barrow Street, Creative Nonfiction, and numerous other literary magazines. He lives in Delaware, Ohio, with his wife, Lynda, and their English Setter, Kracker Jack.