ÜL: Four Mapuche Poets, Elicura Chihuailaf, Leonel Lienlaf, Jaime Luis Huenún, and Graciela Huinao

by Marcella Durand

Edited by Cecilia Vicuña, translated by John Bierhorst

Poetry in Indigenous Languages Series, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998. 149 pages.


The United States is an island, with extremely long mental and linguistic borders, and American English passionately defended. It’s essential to have books like ÜL: Four Mapuche Poets: Elicura Chihuailaf, Leonel Lienlaf, Jaime Luis Huenún, Graciela Huinao, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and translated by John Bierhorst, poke into its isolated existence. The poems are translated from Mapudungun to Spanish to English, and translated from oral expression to inscription on the page. Even these filtered and "frozen" (the word Mapuche poet Leonel Lienlaf uses to describe the printed versions of his poems) poems have the power to highlight the limitations and possibilities of one’s own language as a communal expression and shaper of perception.

In the introductory biography/artist’s statement for Lienlaf, Vicuña says: "One look at the Mapudungun suggests Lienlaf’s mastery of the language. One or two words, in some cases, convey the entire meaning of a line, where the corresponding Spanish needs a full phrase."On reading Lienlaf’s "Rebirth," I felt the same thrill as when I first discovered that the Hopi language has an enormous range of verb tenses that go far beyond English’s simple past/present/future conjugations. Such translations are the evidence that the inarticulate (including disenfranchised, disputed, disrupted experience) can be articulated, that the way English is formulated is not necessarily the only way that experience can be expressed.



My soul is confused
with the earth
as it brightens and
Flowering soul.



Se confunde mi espiritu
cuando se alegra
y florece con la tierra.
Espiritu florido.


"Rayen Pülli"

ñi pülli,
rayen pülli.

The Mapuche are the original inhabitants of "Chile," (a name which Vicuña calls "superimposed on a territory already named by antecedent peoples"). As recently as 1979, a law was declared "abolishing communal ownership of the land and even the definition of Mapuche culture as a way of life with a name of its own." This "genocidal law" sparked a political movement that "seeks to recover both the land base and cultural rights," and provoked an upsurge or "pillán" in the public expression of Mapuche poetry, with public performances and publications devoted to it.

Both Vicuña and Lienlaf tell us that the oral expression of this poetry is essential to its existence; that "our creativity is more properly experiential. In Chilean society, by contrast, the need for expression is channeled into writing, because there you do not have the interlocutors with whom poetry can be developed ... When you print Mapudungun on a piece of paper it becomes frozen, as though it had been startled, keeping the words from finding their bearing. Orality lets you adjust the meaning; writing does not." And the poem, in oral expression, becomes an essential part of establishing contact with the community (in direct opposition to the 1979 law).

Much of the poetry presents the intricacies of being a Mapuche, an act that has been and is dangerous and complex in the face of societal and governmental repression. Graciela Huinao recalls that even though her father spoke to her in tse dungun (a version of Mapudungun), she responded in Spanish. "I would hear him sing in the native language. How I would love to have learned it! But if I could speak it, how would I write it? In what alphabet?" And as a woman, her situation is even more complex, as "the first woman to take up the pen in a family line of women who were abducted and raped." It’s exhilarating then, to read her all-capitalized "shouts," a headfirst way to break thru that double silence:



PSALM 1492
                     to the Guarani people



In a common practice very much ongoing, land is taken from native populations and stripped in particularly evil ways (i.e. gold mining in Papua New Guinea). Chile is no exception. And this destruction is very much linked to the destruction of language--like the loss of the original meaning of place-names which gave human continuity and depth to a place. As Vicuña says in her introduction, "There is no memory of the old art of naming, and nobody today reads ‘place of the female condor’ in the name Manquehue, or ‘pain’ in the name of the hill Huelen, the Cerro Santa Lucia, in the center of Santiago." Chihuailaf in a paired set of poems expresses this geographical duality of loss: the ones who named the land are now strangers within the land’s political and social system.

"Things Turn Out Astoundingly in the Countryside"

And at times there is nothing, I tell them. Nothing
The uneventful days pass by
My brothers say to me
Listen to the sound of the stream
     in the forest the song of the stream
(Come, let’s lean over and drink from its banks)

"And at Times There Is Nothing, I Tell Them. Nothing"

Things turn out astoundingly in the countryside
And in the city an alien rhythm
closes the circle of those who wait
mingle as lovers
in their common place
that is endless time
     Is it evening, Sunday evening?
My interior says, ‘Salud!’
     and my outer self lifts the transparent
cup for me.
"Salud, salud," it repeats
Those around me (my people)
answer, "Your wine. Clean?
Or sour."
(Of how many waters and of what kind is
the water I drink?)

Huenún, in darker, more solipsistic poems, takes this duality of existence into extreme displacement, the dismemberment of language inflicted upon identity. From "Book": "I can read only your false roots, huenún/jaime luis, man/or demon headstrong or brain-sick/I can read only half/the countenance that makes you old,/the other half you earn/by the toil of your eyes/and that/has no explication in my/alphabet." From "After Reading So Much Cesar Vallejo": "And that I am a true disciple of yours/in whatever pertains to/not loving my hands/until the birth of that sixth beautiful finger/each one is missing." Like Huinao, Huenún has lost his native tongue, and his pain reverberates through his poems.

These poets, who are descended from the first "namers," are now inhabitants without territory, but are mapping a linguisitic territory, to become inhabitants again of their own language. Lienlaf: "My hand would not write/what wasn’t my own/He said to me:/’You must be the rising silence.’//My hand/told me the world/could not be written." But it must, and Lienlaf, along with his three comrades, does. The disappearance of a language limits the ways one can think, the ability to conceive of alternatives--different ways of thinking are lost. Verb tenses, history, mythology, perception: limited, blank, void. This book wedges that closing door back open.


BIO: Marcella Durand is the author of City of Ports (Situations Press), the Program Coordinator for the Poetry Project, and the poetry editor for Erato Press. She has collaborated on prints, broadsides, and sculptures with artists Richard O’Russa and Karoline Schleh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 6ix, Outlet, Chain, Skanky Possum, and Situation.


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