A Writer Writes

    by Jim Galbraith (Chile 1966–68)

          Victor: It’s Always Art

          Chile, 1968


          When he wasn’t making art,
          he was stealing it.  But always art.
          Mochica pots, locos so real
          you could name their disorders,
          appeared on Emilio’s table.
          “From where?”
          “Victor robs museums.”
          With him
          the sooty, immoral districts gathered light
          like paintings of Paris neighborhoods
          at night.  Always art.


          Ordinary enough, he looked,
          tough guy, greasy hair,
          tight jeans — maybe a
          hint of James Dean — maybe strayed
          from a streetcorner in Brooklyn.
          He’d drop in, show drawings,
          drink coffee, wine, insult bad paintings —
          “not enough fuerza,” he’d say
          cheat everyone at cards.  All ordinary.
          But when he left, the stories stayed,
          lingering for days, defining things.
          He grew in his absence.
          And we developed secret lives.


          The stories lingered —
          how he aspired to fiction,
          reading a newspaper, smoking a cigarette
          on a crowded train — Santiago to Viña —
          in a cassock & roman collar;
          In Viña
          trying out for a cheap novel,
          loading the cassock with figurines
          & returning to Santiago
          like a truck running refugees
                                    across the border.


          Two friends of Fernando’s come
          to pick up the barbells and weights
          he left scattered amidst the junk.  They find
          most; only two fifty-pound bronze
          ones missing.  I haven’t seen them.
          I’ll ask.  “Say you don’t know.
          Victor melted them down to make sculpture.”
          Later a bronze head of Christ appears  —
          airy, abstract . . .           Victor
          lifts weights to artistic heights.


          Next, facts aspire to the condition of lies.
          Bernardo O’Higgins’ pistols missing
          from Museo Nacional:
          “How do you know Victor did it?”
          “He told me.”
          “How do you know he didn’t read it in the paper?”
          “He told me three days before it came out in
                 the paper.”
          After days of heat from the police, the anonymous
                 phone call;
          the pistols are in the National Cathedral —
          the confessional.
          For Victor, a failure but a triumph —
          his performance was full of danger;
          it had dramatic interest, flashy paradox —
          artistically speaking, his biggest job.
          The reviews are good.


          Where is he now?
          I don’t know,
          and probably it’s just as well.
          Art, after all, is bigger than life.
          He couldn’t have kept up with himself.
          And life, after all, is bigger than art.
          The poem couldn’t have kept up with him.

          MAPUCHE WOMAN: The Art of the Deal

          (Around Temuco 1967)

          When we climbed on the back of the truck,
          She was sitting there — picture out of the tourist guide
          Leathered skin and full thick, coarse skirt
          In colors a computer could never imagine.

          When the truck takes a side road
          We carry her groceries, mud sucking our shoes
          Down the road to her cottage

          “The Chileans are my neighbors,
          but I don’t like them.
          They steal my sheep.”
          We arrive at the hedge-hidden yard

          And sit outside the postcard cottage.
          After chatting a bit, we’re ready to go.
          “May we take your picture?”
          “Dos mil pesos,” she says.

          She poses slyly, pleased with her deal.
          We snap the photo, privileged to acquire
          Something so authentic.

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer Jim Galbraith taught English at the Universidad del Norte in Antofagasta. He now lives in Joppa, Maryland, and highly recommends the novels of Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003).