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Fall 2007

Self Portrait at Twenty Years

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I set off, I took up the march and never knew
where it might take me. I went full of fear,
my stomach dropped, my head was buzzing:
I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
I don't know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
to leave so soon, but at the same time
I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
You either listen or you don't, and I listened
and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
born on the air and in the sea.
A sword and shield. And then,
despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
against death's cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.

—Roberto Bolaño
(translated from the Spanish by Laura Healy)


Roberto Bolaño, though better known as the author of Distant Star, By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives, and other novels, started out as a poet, co-founding the Infrarealist poetry movement in Mexico City in the 1970s. Before his death in Catalonia in 2003, he had published two collections of poetry; one more came out posthumously. His translator, Laura Healy, has done a full translation of Bolaño's first poetry collection, The Romantic Dogs, from which this poem is taken.
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