2. Conquistadors

 

Theirs was the fortune they made themselves,
fought for in the swamps, forests, terraces, mountains
cities and temples. What did it matter if the Church
admonished or was wary? With a hand in or
not, men died the same. Charles on his distant,
splenetic throne was stunned by the riches, the stories
told of the cities, the plumed warriors, the mountain
Indians who worked on the slopes half lost to air.

Why should he worry what was done for Spain?
He would send his advisers and if they ameliorated
a little the circumstances, the Inca king
should be bloodied the same and wear the yoke
as a ridiculous puppet whose blank eyes stared
at white peaks and selvas, with nowhere to go.
No, their gods were not helping, but indeed were
day by day dropping into golden blocks. It was

just as predicted and the showy procession
to the southlands returned with their thousands dead.
At the legendary treasures men shook their heads,
smiled at the simpletons and sent them on. 

8. First Communists

Each to his needs, and those needs were known:
to worship, not the sun god, but his passage through
the peoples in their festivals, in their labouring strokes
on their high fields, in the mines, on the mountain roads,
in their corvees at the bridges, in manoeuvres for war.
The world was an emptiness with many gods. So
said the priesthood, which was evident too
in the blockades of darkness where no one went.

Yet each had his wants. They were a quiet people,
content for the most part with what was given,
with a period of toiling as there was for resting. All
had of the harvest and fruits and bore their children
much as they had done before the Incas came.
All had an apportionment of the sun and rain,
and took their dreams with them when they died. True
the fields they tilled in they did not inherit
but the high god himself had his days and vistas

when loosed to the far time, between earth and sky,
and the sunlight broke through and their sacred shrines
that blazed with a certainty at each fall of day
told them to be peaceful and accept their plight.

21. Returning North

This they never forgot as they filed back north
quietly past Indians to the more friendly hills.
The backbone of mountains went with them, and in
the scatter cones, eruptions and in the fluted
siftings of whiteness said that what was witnessed
was not theirs for holding or for holding long,
but only as the blue in the deep inserts of ice
that kept to itself and could not opened.

To be remembered as well in the implacable
laws they enacted  — which were always broken:
it was not the hardship they shared but only
the incompleteness in striving that made them real.
Here in these strong lands they were forever losing
their fields in the Spring time to the meltwater rush.
They never looked back, though the mountains trembled
and the ordinances of God were rudely strewn.

This was their calling and the green Atlantic,
angry with its seabirds and its homewarding clouds,
lifted them at evening from the patchwork pastures
to a cross they could pray to: a half-forgiving place.

35. Early Republic

First, you will remember, it was a different place.
In the Constitution what freedom? and as for
deference to authority or any such notion —
that did not reach to containing power. Of course
there were difficulties, and indeed at first,
many would have wanted the Spanish back.
Murders, lootings, fierce exactions, the wild west
of Mexico or Arizona but without the glamour.

No glamour at all. A lawless country, riven
by factions and wars, with most near starving. The south
was in uproar: it was bandit country,
the north was distant but famished, and in its nitrates
that lured the men on into the desert air
there was nothing but the absence you still breathe in
as out of the plane you see the neat enclosures
of school and the houses and the playing fields.

Then it was different: the visitor attractions,
likewise the museums with the artist's impression,
show  life on the brink of extinction: brutal, but
in the end a home, they said, to all who came.

44. Old Buildings Providencia

As so often, these dear old buildings off
Providencia with their projecting balconies,
with doors graciously open in the evenings, speak
of the receptions they have hosted, the exuberant
manner of women frequenting them who
were so light-headed and beautiful that
even a snub to the President could be overlooked.

Paid or unpaid they never worked, never
did one useful thing. Even their own parties
they hardly attended but left guests to wander,
accost the odd waiter, yes, it didn't matter:
feathered and brainless, they were loved to bits.
A party without them just didn't count. Even
old men who play the market, live in clubs,
say with a slow smile how it was different then.

Was it a dream or self-delusion? They were
silly, of course, and selfish — yet how many
in clearing out a dead husband's things will come
upon a cork or name or one high-heeled shoe?

50. Nitrate Worker's Strike 1925

You can see them as they stare, dishevelled
and disheartened in the threadbare photos
a peseta a dozen in the left-wing tracts.
It is true, and the dust that was in their lungs
wore through in the end to the shabby lies.
Locked into conflict, their picks struck sparks on
a surface no more yielding than were or could
be the owners of mines or the falling price.

First it was the nitrate that had won this land
of wind-scorched emptiness and numbing cold.
Extremes of penury but a good deal better
than stuck as migrants on the minifundios:
increasingly they worked till the Great War struck.
Blockaded, the Germans bought no nitrates
but fashioned their own, and the whole world followed:
the price fell, the mines closed, the families starved.

Of course they agitated, and held assemblies,
threatened violence as the law locked them out.
They were shot in their hundreds, mere desperate men
but martyrs to the socialists, who would not forget.

74. A Nation of Enemies

Nothing can be done now that neither side
will give an inch and the blood-stained past
is washed of all truth and must be written anew.
Nothing will content them that ended short
of the final victory, the consummation
of all who have struggled and left their teeth, blood
finger nails, testicles and bone pulled from sockets
far out from landfall or in shallow graves.

That cost was fearsome as were the gendarmes shot,
the businesses looted, and the farms destroyed.
Both sides that had weapons and would have manned
the barricades erected at every corner
in the high streets, workshops, in the fashionable suburbs:
a cataclysm in the making that would have shown
how fierce are the hatreds that ignorance feeds
and how long or forever its restitution

Dante they remembered put such people in hell.
That recourse was not needed, it was hell itself
to think of fathers or children, shootings and beatings,
and the families who grieve, perhaps always will.

79. Summer Cafes

And this is the best time, the trees with their sheafed
limbs in shadow, their iridescent branches
laden with buxom sunlight, as though that substance,
whatever it might be, photons or fierce particles,
were the molasses of a last burst of cascading
leaves in this Summertime world of cafes, long
esplanades of brightness through the falling
interludes of maples, awnings and brilliant talk.

Do not be deceived. The ice creams, cakes
and coffees and the conversation closing
on a sale or purchase lingered over at Falabella
are underwritten by the past crops brooding in the fields,
by the leaf tops smouldering in the sunset, coruscations
of bamboos imported, as all are imported
into this emptiness of plains and small rivers
with the pines, braying jacaranda and eucalyptids

weeping in their Gondwanaland of red
pastures, of gauche soils and immensities of sand
singing in the air, and the out-station pueblos
fallow at evening behind their mud-brick walls.

84. Outer Industrial Zone of Santiago

The light glints and goes out across the poplar-
and factory-dotted plain where a range
of mountains trolleys to close the view eastward
and insist this was wanted, and here we are.

The train picks up speed and rattles across
a metalled carriageway with lighted signs
that flash on south at intersections and make
a virtue of being contemporary and at the wheel.

Around us, the walls of a concrete obtuseness
take us from the station and in the gaps occasionally
show a flatland of garden plots and steep-roofed buildings
sintering under the sun, their corrugations
folding, like those of factories and odd metal works,
into views from the fortresses of apartment blocks
that rise out of a landscape as at Nagasaki
where only the very largest of blocks survived.

These are the iron cordones, Allende's grip
on the rich that he could plunder, while all
about are the hopes new made and the faces that shine
through tiers of shuttering into high-rise glass.

99. Sounds of the City

With so many round here born among
the mountains, each city block of sound travels
rumbling after them to have the hard,
dense ground back, and even the buses, and
the heavy transport and the sharp car hoot
do not so much deafen the senses but
reach to the root, as they have to: the whole land here
should it ever be tested will not bear weight.

Listen to the Mapocho and you will hear them
talking, the soldiers, the conquistadors,
a harshness stamping the syllables, as was
the cross from the first on the glittering coins.
Yes, this was their mark, encrusting and durable,
made more refulgent than their Saviour's name,
a token if ever was wanted of the continuing
blows beneath cladding of the iron soul.

So they continue in the grey cordones,
in the buffeting of winds and the grind of gears
all is wadded with the past and even walls
of glass reflect mines, small holdings, and towering hills.