Unlike the United States, Chile has a longish extant history of conceptual poetry, one which employs, unlike the United States, a strong visual element, so that the line between concrete and conceptual is as immaterial and real as that between Chile and the United States. Our first responders have practiced the curatorial gesture of wholesale or piecemeal appropriation or the documentary gesture of procedure or constraint; Chilean pioneers such as Juan Luis Martínez wed pure linguistic appropriation to image reproduction and the inclusion of actual things, such as a metal fishhook taped to the page of a book, or a pane of clear plastic covering a square cut in another which has a very different effect than writing the word “window.” Carlos Soto is a Chilean conceptual poet working in the United States. That is to say, he takes the United States as the stuff of both materiality and immateriality, and cuts Chilean windows within. There are appropriated images, such as of Ground Zero or a building going boom; there are appropriated texts, such as the Constitution, vowels detached, or the Periodic Table of the Elemental, in which the elements are all “me”; there are the Kosuthean both-in-one, such as the complete archival description of Dorothea Lange’s iconic migrant farm mother photo. Soto’s work is overtly political, in the tradition of Chilean conceptualism—born initially from the repression/censorship of the Pinochet government. Unlike American political poetry, in which protest itself often passes for poetry, putting the carp before the horse, this form of political poetry is frequently funny, such as the inclusion in a mirror-poem instruction: “Now try to see the text of the poem inverted in the back of your eyes (Figure 2),” or the call-numbers to various great books of American poetry that includes a work of pure nonfiction polemic. It’s Kant, cant. Pieces such as Rights assessment is your responsibility, take the political and drain it of any affect save the situational. In this, Soto proves that conceptual poetry is local poetry, the site-non-site of specific sobjectivity, which is always located in the happy and egalitarian place between us and the thing we’re thinking on. In a recent interview, Chilean poet Raul Zurita described Juan Luis Martínez’s as “a poetry without God.” Soto’s poetry, then, is a poetry without goddishness. Which is an even better polemic.
Vanessa Place, Los Angeles, August 2011