“A visible light in the gathering darkness”: Peter Valente on Ennio Moltedo’s Poetry Collection Night

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile during a coup d’état supported by the United States, overthrowing the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende. During Pinochet’s seventeen-year authoritarian military dictatorship, he persecuted leftists, socialists, and critics of his regime, which resulted in the executions and imprisonment of thousands of people, and the forced disappearance and torture of many others. Pinochet’s military government implemented economic policies that benefited the wealthy, banned trade unions, and removed tariff protections for local businesses. Pinochet’s fortune grew considerably during his years in power since he had dozens of bank accounts in other countries and profited from his real estate investments. Such corruption is typical of despotic regimes, both in Moltedo’s time and our own. Isabelle Allende, Salvador’s goddaughter, wrote the following about life under Pinochet’s regime: “It is very hard to live in fear. Out of necessity, one adapts rapidly. Denial is a way of protecting oneself. There is a feeling of impotence and loneliness. // Terror works by isolating people. Ideally, every little family is at home watching the official version of the news on TV, there is no interaction, no public discourse, no dialogue or discussion, no exchange of ideas that might stir rebellion.”[1]

It was during Pinochet’s regime that Ennio Moltedo (1931-2012) wrote the poems collected in Night (published in 1999)[2], which appear in a strong new translation by Marguerite Feitlowitz. The collection is a scathing indictment of the dictatorship and a book that is ultimately a meditation on how all forms of power prohibit human freedom. For Moltedo, the destruction of his world is total, there is little solace in celebrations, poetry, dancing, love—everything seems to have a tone of insincerity. Pleasure is not possible in a world where everything is regulated according to strict laws, and where the truth is censored in the name of maintaining the power of the State. Pinochet’s regime valued silence on the part of the people, demanding that they obey the Law without question, as if it were dictated by God. In remaining silent, people became complicit; Moltedo writes in poem 24, “The general heart doesn’t beat. Though it exists. // What we can call—in sentimental moments—the collective heart is not the sum total of individual hearts. The general heart is a unique artifact and whoever finds it can consider himself dead.”  The only possible solidarity is with the State; and that requires you to become an automaton. No one is safe. The people are blinded by all the laws that are enforced, of course, for their own protection: “There’s centralized authority over taxes and fumes, and smiles and assistance are disallowed and there are instructions (read them carefully) for filling gaps and there will always be one more prohibition, so there are more laws, laws, laws: blindfolding the country.” There is only the blazing glory of the murderous State or perpetual darkness: “To demonstrate valor and bring prestige back from the dead, they kill. For the sake of life—unified, sanctified life, devoted to all that is holy.”One must choose, in a world where even the seemingly correct choice doesn’t guarantee safety or happiness.

In poem 63, Moltedo writes, “I search for truth in the books discarded in the square, in the dreams of sleeping cats and the intelligent gaze of dogs that roam through the gardens of Congress.” Faith in humanity seems to disappear when there is such corruption and death in a regime that has lost its mind; where the lunatics have escaped from the asylum and are in charge. There is more meaning in the dreams of sleeping cats and the gaze of dogs, that defy human understanding, and what cannot be coded, measured, or categorized. What we need are not more arbitrary laws that attempt to weigh right and wrong and dictate morality. “Please lift up your skirts and stick / your fears and videos up your own moral ass.” Furthermore, Moltedo offers in poem 44: “Protect me, God, from pedagogical meaning, and let each day surprise my sight with the breeze that blows—in no style—past the corner.” The truth is in the books that were discarded, that were ignored, secret, hidden, not in what is visible and claims to be the truth, whether it’s printed in a newspaper, or heard on television. The lies proliferate and the people flounder in their ignorance; we must remember, “Law, power, and terror align today against liberty, laughter, and the unprotected.” It is a terrible feeling when you believe you are free and are incapable of knowing that you are not. And what of the poet’s role as a liberator?     

Of the several poets that Moltedo mentions in Night, Dante is the one mentioned most frequently; Moltedo refers to him in several places. The first is in poem 16:

For political reasons the authorities banished the poet.

Now an old man, he was even to know that if he showed signs of repentance he would be allowed to return to the fatherland.

Never, replied Dante.

For centuries Florence has solicited Ravenna for the return of the poet’s remains and that city has always replied: Never.

 

Never will we be capable of replying never.

On January 27, 1302, Dante was banished from his native Florence, for numerous false charges, largely because his main enemy was the powerful and corrupt Pope Boniface VIII. If he attempted to return, he would face being burned alive. Eventually, after many years, the ban was lifted and he was allowed to return to Florence if he would apologize; rather than face such humiliation, he refused. The response from the authorities was that, in addition to the initial threat of being burned alive, if he attempted to enter Florence again, he would be decapitated. One can barely imagine the horror of those who were tortured under Pinochet’s regime, or those who simply “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. For Moltedo, Dante represented a poet who said NO to corruption and was fearless against the threat of violence. The following is an example of Dante’s anger against a certain Italian city state; substitute Chile for Pisa: “Ah Pisa! Disgrace of those among the Latinate / People who still say for “yes” – since we / Italians are slow to punish, let the islands / Of Capria and Gorgona move about / And block the river Arno right at its mouth, / So the water floods back and all your people drown!”[3] Moltedo feels a kinship with the medieval poet, who faced, in the 14th century, a world of constant violence and betrayal. In the following poem, Moltedo evokes Dante’s circles of hell and echoes his own hatred of pious hypocrites:

Pious hypocrites kowtowing to the Pope.
Remember? And after every Sunday.

 

Their constancy and superhuman industry get them pardons from the court with jurisdiction.

 

Monday is a whole different thing. Pious hypocrites tunneling through every circle of hell only to get here alive and early.

The pious hypocrites are returning from hell. Presumably, as zombies. Furthermore, the following quote from Moltedo could be a perfect description of Dante’s emotions when he was in exile: “Once you’ve been thrown out, and good riddance, you can’t go back home. Even when out of sight and out of mind, you set out again, as an old man, to go back to the place that gave you comfort: the country you called home. // Because the country you called home has disappeared.”There is nothing familiar in the new Chile. Everything is made strange and sinister. There is no one you can trust.

And in such a political environment, what about the possibility of love? Moltedo writes in poem 33: “… The curtain is coming down—who would have imagined it after so many years of experimental theater—where, for a cup of tea and a comfy seat and slaps-on-the-back among ourselves—because, it now appears, all that art and love was just a show–despite the nights and days of remembrance and remorse—who would have imagined? … I remember nothing and no one and all these lights and electronics are powerless to bring any of it back.” When a dictatorship creates its own self-serving narratives despite the truth then the truth, itself, suffers; when two people from opposing political sides cannot agree, for example, on the contents of a photograph, then the truth has no hope of surviving. The lie becomes the truth. Our technological revolution has changed the world. There is no going back. And if we think of the present alteration in our consciousness, we can clearly see this shift. Digital space is immaterial and pure; time in the digital world is theoretically infinite; but there is never enough time in a 24 hour day to get what you want done. Where has the time gone? Our sense of time and space is completely destabilized with the creation of a seamless digital world where there is no loss, no time wasted, no decay; a Facebook post will appear, and then, in a split second, another image is produced to replace it, on and on, according to an algorithm; there is almost no delay and no loss as the posts are relegated into a kind of digital oblivion. We fear losing time. Having nothing to do. Not being productive. Being good servants. Being good capitalists. I think Moltedo would agree; he writes that everything is, “refried for your visual and social consumption.”

Moltedo views love as a political tool. As he explains in poem 110, “There’s no doubt that love is a many-splendored thing … Especially if it blunts the enemy’s intelligence.” Love, for him, has the power to destabilize power structures because it is contrary to the arbitrary laws of the state that preach hate and division. Poetry belongs to the irrational subconscious, the vast ocean that threatens to engulf the man-made structures. Instead of the rational, Moltedo gives voice to the “scream”; this is the voice of blasphemy which infects the language; it obeys the chthonic; it is in league with Thanatos as much as it desires to express the pleasures of love, Eros; knowledge of our own mortality lends an urgency to all our acts. Our happiness should not be contingent on ephemeral joys but on a more genuine and lasting happiness about our own selves, and our bodies, without any guilt, fear or shame. This is what the poet seeks out to express amidst all the carnage of a world on fire.

And there is hope in one respect: If we accept that no one’s role in life is any different from the other, and that no one is special, then there is a possibility to change the script in this calamitous stage production we call life. We can change, alter the script, skip an act. For the writer and philosopher, Paul B. Preciado, “the revolution does not begin with a march in the sun, but with a hiatus, a pause, a tiny shift, a deviation in the game of improvisations and appearances.” Forget social determinism or the neoliberal faith in the free market as if this was a given. Forget even the man-made ideas, the faith in men like Pinochet, who are essentially self-serving and who leave a legacy of violence and terror. Moltedo writes:

Lucilio, after so much talk and so much verse dedicated to
pretty girls you fall into the arms of a comical old lady. No
one is criticizing. On the contrary, you’ll learn more than
you ever believed you taught.

By now you’ll have realized that the silence of your young
friends was only their submission to the impossibility of
speech in the realm of mystery.

But now, in these old arms you’ll have noted that you never
stop thinking or being surprised and soon you’ll recognize
that here lies poetry, eternally ripe.

The “comical old lady” is the feminine as the great Goddess, or Mother-protector surrounded by the orphaned or the lost, giving them comfort. Finally, Moltedo writes in poem 71, with a reference to the novel The Castle by Franz Kafka, “Impossible, K, to enter the castle. The castle has no name, no owner, and is always empty. Even so, we must strive for the sky: realm of the scintillating promise: Freedom.” So, from the eternal night there is finally a visible light. This phrase reminds me of Dante’s happiness when he finally emerges from the darkness of hell and once more views the stars, in the early dawn sky. For Dante, this is a promise of eventual freedom when he arrives in Paradise. Moltedo’s Night asks us to never stop striving for freedom, for our own Paradise, no matter how much the night seems eternal.

Night, by Ennio Moltedo. Translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz. New York City, NY: World Poetry Books, November 2022. 104 pages. $20.00, paper.

Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. His most recent books are a collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022). Forthcoming is his translation of Antonin Artaud, The True Story of Jesus-Christ (Infinity Land Press, 2022), a collection of essays on Artaud, Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud (Infinity Land Press, 2022), and his translation of Nicolas pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).

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[1] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/09/life-under-pinochet-isabel-allende-day-we-buried-our-freedom/

[2] It was not published during this time but much later.

[3] The Divine Comedy, trans. Burton Raffel (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 166.