A tribute to Jorge Etcheverry on his 70th birthday

Claudio Durán

Jorge EtcheverryChilean-Canadian poet Jorge Etcheverry, one of the most important figures in Hispanic Canadian literature, turned 70 this year. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, fellow Chilean-Canadian writer Claudio Durán offered him the following tribute.

I seem to remember meeting Jorge in 1964 when he took a course in logic in the Pedagogical Institute at Universidad de Chile. I was the course assistant. However, as much as I tried to locate him in a tutorial, I had no luck. What I do remember very clearly is the following: one day, I think it was in 1966, I arrived at the institute and in the courtyard there was a large group of students who were listening to someone sitting on one of the benches. I went over to them and there was Jorge, sitting next to Professor Rivano, reading poetry with verve and enthusiasm. But I only managed to hear a few lines before Jorge finished his reading, stood up and departed, followed by most of the students who had been listening to him. As I was standing next to Juan Rivano, I stayed to talk to him. Pointing to Jorge with his index finger, he said to me:

“There goes a great future Chilean poet.”

Well, the rest of the story is well-known, and today we pay tribute to a great Chilean poet in Canada on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The strange dialectic of exile means that we view him here in this shared exile. I have no doubt, however, that Jorge is a great poet in Chile as well. But in Chile it is hard to see the distance once we’ve left, even if it has been a forced departure.

Jorge has been hugely important for my development as a poet in this country, and I’m sure that many of you and many other people would say the same. His tireless work in promoting literature in Spanish, expressed in the organization of poetry recitals and readings for so many years, and his work directing publications in print and online, is well-known and has provided writers and poets from Chile and from other countries with abundant opportunities to participate. He has allowed us to be Chilean writers and poets in Canada. In this way, he has helped us keep Chile in our hearts.

Jorge is a great poet, just as Juan Rivano said back in 1966. His poetry has a profound quality which is truly enviable: it flows on the level of everyday language while at the same time being great poetry. In some poems I’ve tried to do this, with some success, but with great difficulty. In fact, Jorge gave an enthusiastic review of my poem on Pompeii, to which I reacted with relief and with… WHAT???

Other qualities of his poetry in my view are the following:

His poetry is malleable, transportable, constructible and desconstructible; past, present and future; contextualizable and recontextualizable. His poetry is thus dynamic and dialectic; it is not, incidentally, “dead language”. His poetry will thus be appearing and reappearing over time in all its expressive diversity. It encompasses a vast wealth of dimensions, nuances, themes, attitudes, approaches to life, etc. I will mention a few of these issues here: the richness and cohesion of language that is apparently simple yet loaded with experience and poetic talent; we find an irony, sometimes self-referential, other times aimed at another person, situation or thing; his views on women and gender relations; exile, of course; a kind of poetic art that can be gradually discovered in many of his poems; a reflection on Western cultural tradition; the highly racial and ethnic dimension of life in the North; memories of and longings for friendships and people he knew in the old Chile; a vision of the universality of human and social experience; observations on his ethnic origin, but at the same time, and very interestingly, on the origin of the human species and its relationships with other species; and finally, on ocassions, a kind of pessimism and desperation that can even lead to a sort of roughing of his soul. In short, it is poetry that resonates!!

Jorge, I congratulate you today on your 70th birthday and hope that in another 70 years we reunite here, or in Chile, or some other place in the universe to read poetry!

Translated by Martin Boyd

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