Commentaries - January 2012

On Raul Zurita's visionary poetics

I first heard Raul Zurita read his poems on May 6th, 2010 at Poets House, on the occasion of the great Chilean poet’s visit to NY. The reading was from his book Purgatory, published in 1979 in Spanish and in 2010 by the University of California Press in translation by Anna Deeny, who was also on hand that evening to read her translations. Zurita’s reading moved me to the core. Others I spoke to after the reading were similarly astounded. In performance, Zurita’s visionary poetics proves its own language like none other. Since then I’ve called Zurita twice in Santiago, the first time to record him reading from Purgatory (CCP #219), the second time reading from Inri (CCP #234), translated by William Rowe and published by Marick Press.

From Zurita’s Inri:

Strange baits rain from the sky. Surprising bait falls falls upon the sea. Down below the ocean, up above unusual clouds on a clear day. Surprising baits rain on the sea. There was a love raining, there was a clear day that’s raining now on the sea.

In 1973, the U.S. backed military coup in Chile led to the eighteen year rule of the Pinochet regime.Raul Zurita survived that regime’s purge of much of the Chilean Left and the murder of many of his friends and countrypersons. Like all Chileans he has since lived with the fates of the Disappeared, those who were thrown from planes into the ocean along Chile’s coast and into Chile’s volcanoes, desert, and mountains. But Zurita also survived his own arrest and internment in 1973 in a concentration camp, where he was tortured; later, he survived a period of confinement in a mental institution. (As an act of protest, and as a literalization of the Christian “turn the other cheek” in 1975 Zurita placed a burning hot iron against his own cheek, demonstrating to his torturers he could go further than they, for which he was institutionalized). Zurita not only survived these events: he is the poet of these events. But his is not a poetics of witness alone.

There are shadows, bait for fishes. A clear day is raining, a love that was never said. Love, ah yes, love, amazing baits are raining from the sky on the shadow of fishes in the sea.

Clear days fall. Some strange baits with clear days stuck to them, with loves that were never said.

The sea, it says the sea. It says baits that rain and clear days stuck to them, it says unfinished loves, clear and unfinished days that rain for the fish in the sea.

To call Zurita’s poetics “haunted” understates the matter. In his work the impression created is that he ceases to be only himself so that the poem as event can become a form that contains the Disappeared, the voice of the poem not the voice of the poet. As translator William Rowe notes: “… it is not a simple matter of telling what happened, of finding or inventing a persona to speak as a witness. Zurita avoids that method. Perhaps because such a witness would have to speak in a known and familiar language about what the language, the common instrument of expression, had been complicit in denying. It is much more than a problem of personality or honesty… When the book seeks to find an image of what was not seen and not said (the throwing of hundreds of the disappeared into the sea and into volcanoes), the imagining of it involves the whole environment: the whole landscape of Chile. Since there is no place for those events in the remembered landscape, since they don’t belong to it, it has to be re-imagined. The mountains, sky, ocean, etc. occur: the landscape is not a fixed frame in which things happen, not a map.”

I think Rowe has it exactly right. Grace of its linguistic and visionary commitment, its capacity to imagine what is perforce outside experience, Zurita has written a poetry that surpasses what a more politically committed poetry could have achieved. Zurita’s poems might be figured as an eco-poetry in which the space between nature and history is closed up, once we realize that the work reimagines the entirety of the ocean in such a way as to include those thrown from planes into that ocean. And reimagines the mountains in such a way as to include the Disappeared thrown from planes into their snows until one can only speak of those mountains as containing those people. And renders the desert no longer conceivable except if the voices and the deaths in the desert are made a part of that desert. It was Camille Dungy, the editor of the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry who pointed out in her CCP appearance (#221) that the poets in her book do not necessarily view a tree as simply a tree, since it might also be the case that someone was lynched from that particular tree; they do not look at an agricultural site as an idyl, since one’s ancestors might have worked that land in slavery. Indeed, only certain privileged, bourgeois perspectives can divorce “nature” from “history” in order to yield a “nature poetry” that refreshes us in its aftermath. I have argued that to view Nature apart from other discourses and entities (like language for example) is analogous to the pornographic (without taking any position pro or con on pornography), where one function (Nature) is fetishized and isolated from other functions and possibilities (as sex is in pornography). By contrast to a nature poetry, an eco-poetics seeks out complicated interrelationships between multiple modes of the sensual.  Zurita’s is one of the great poetries to overcome the artificiality of the nature/history distinction, to give us the Tree and the invisible histories enacted in and around the Tree, as Dungy calls for.

Extraordinary skies, days, dreams sinking into the silver whirlpools of waves, I heard the silver mouths of fish devouring unfinished goodbyes. I heard immense plains of love saying that no more. Angels, musical scores of love saying no more.

Universes, cosmoses, unfinished winds raining down in thousands of pink baits onto the carnivorous sea of Chile. I heard plains of love never said, infinite skies of love sinking into the carnivorous tombs of fishes.

Zurita now suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. I have to guess this was brought on by torture and  political trauma. When he reads, as at Poets House, his body, damaged in that way, moves to the rhythm of the disease, of his trials. His voice, however, is something other.  Resonant, deep, powerful, and also amazingly precise, intentional, meshed to the rhythmic structure of the poem being read, it as if the voice and the poem were coming from some place other than the body. This creates the sense that the voice of the poem comes from elsewhere: that the voice of the poem is the voice of the land speaking the being of the Disappeared, the voice of some larger energy that contains the Disappeared as present.  I think the two recordings of Zurita’s reading on the CCP page honor something of this phenomenon. The Pinochet regime, in placing its victims beyond documentation, did not count on the power of a visionary poetics to make present its crimes.

Zurita is a very different poet than Neruda, but from Neruda to Zurita, with many other strong poets and poetries besides (see Cecilia Vicuña’s PennSound page) the Chileans are not fooling around. If Zurita doesn’t eventually win the Nobel it will be a travesty.

People rain down and fall in strange positions like rare fruit of a strange harvest.

Viviana hears surprising human baits raining down, amazing human fruit harvested in strange fields, Viviana is now Chile. She hears human fruit raining down like golden suns exploding on the waters.

Inri at Marick Press

Puratory at UC Press

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry

Cecilia Vicuña's PennSound page

Ken Bolton (photo by Adrian Wiggins)
Ken Bolton (photo by Adrian Wiggins)

When I read Eileen Myles' book The Importance of Being Iceland in November 2010, I was stimulated by its breadth of sources and its kind of charged acuity. I decided to publish a review of it in Jacket. In the essays Eileen had written mostly about art and often about the circumstances of travelling, mainly to Iceland, to look at art. So I needed to find a critic on a similar wavelength to hers and one for whom the art she talked about might be familiar.  It wasn't too hard - Ken Bolton was the obvious person. He is, like Eileen, both a poet and an art critic and his book of essays, Art Writing, was published around the same time as hers. (Ken also makes drawings, some of which will be published in a forthcoming instalment of the Australian poetry feature currently gearing up again in J2).

Connections between art and poetry and the 'polis' in the actual world where we organise systems to enable daily living have been extrapolated from and theorised at least since Plato's Republic in 380 BC. In the contemporary world Ken Bolton's writings on both visual art and poetry (alongside music and film) in poems and in critical essays intersect in a distinctively coherent manner and always connect with the world-at-large. His big, roaming, sometimes discursive poems can often run to twenty or thirty pages, though he wouldn't necessarily categorise them as 'long poems'. (Ken's recent book of poems, Sly Mongoose, contains several good examples. My review of it is published in the current edition of  galatea resurrects.)

Ken works at the  Australian Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide in South Australia. He posts, fairly regularly, in his online digest of critical writing called  The Dark Horsey Form Guide, Archive & Punter's Companion. He also manages Dark Horsey Bookshop at the aeaf and from time to time he cranks up a perky publishing imprint called Little Esther Books.

Looking back at the first issue of Jacket that John Tranter invited me to guest-edit in late 2004/early 2005, it seems a long time ago that I asked local poet and academic Peter Minter to produce an interview with Ken Bolton for that issue. Both poets have engaged in many projects in the subsequent seven or eight years.

Here in J2, taking up Jessica Lowenthal's suggestion that I revisit some of the outstanding material from the original Jacket, I want to re-present Ken Bolton's review of  Eileen Myles' The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art. It was published in the final issue of the Sydney-based Jacket at the end of 2010.

                                                                      Here is the link.

Drawing of Abaporu by Tarsila do Amaral, 1928, from the Manifesto Antropófago
Tarsila do Amaral's illustration in Oswald de Andrade's "Manifesto Antropófago" (1928)

Dear Readers, by a happy coincidence, today (January 11) is the inaugural post of Brazilian poetry and poetics, and the birthday of Oswald de Andrade, one of the founding poets of Brazilian modernism. "Tupi, or not Tupi that is the question," Oswald famously asked (in English) in the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto, 1928), which adopted cannibalism (and the figure of the indigenous Brazilian cannibal) as a metaphor for a new Brazilian art that would devour and assimiliate European culture and the European vanguards along with local nature and culture to produce a native national art free of its colonial past. Oswald's writing has touched every Brazilian poetic vanguard since.

It is nearly legendary that Tarsila do Amaral's painting "Abaporu" (1928)--her birthday gift to Oswald--inspired the Anthropophagy movement. ("Abaporu" is Tupi-Guarani for "cannibal.") Tarsila's drawing based on "Abaporu" illustrates the Manifesto Antropófago, which appeared in the first "dentition" of the modernist magazine, Revista de Antropofogia (above). Today, I invoke Tarsiwald (as fellow modernist Mário de Andrade called the couple) to welcome you to Brazilian poetry and poetics.

I hope you will join me here often for tastes of current Brazilian poetry, in as experiential a way as can be achieved on this platform. I'll draw topics from my home base in Rio and from the wider world of Brazilian poetry, and I'll complement these Commentaries with artwork by contemporary Brazilian poets making visual art. I will try to translate when necessary from Portuguese into English, and explore some issues in translation while I'm at it, but in anthropophagist spirit, I encourage you to take in what you find here regardless of language, and make from it your own thoughts and responses. I hope we'll begin a rich conversation. Please be in touch with your feedback and questions about Brazilian poetry via Jacket2 Editor Jessica Lowenthal. Thank you to everyone who has already written in anticipation of these Commentaries.

I leave you with something of Oswald himself, his voice, reading from the "Cântico dos Cânticos para Flauta e Violão" (Song of Songs for Flute and Guitar, 1942). In this love poem to his later wife Maria Antonieta d'Alkmin, you'll hear the repetition of her name and the comforting tick of the clock ("relógio"): As coisas são / As coisas vêm / As coisas vão / As coisas / Vão e vêm / Não em vão / As horas / Vão e vêm / Não em vão. (Things are / Things come / Things go / Things / Come and go / Not in vain / The hours / Come and go / Not in vain.) For more recordings of Oswald and others reading his work, Augusto de Campos and Cid Campos produced the marvelous CD Ouvindo Oswald.

As Angélica Freitas invites in Rilke Shake (2007), "Dig in."

V.I, N.2 (PDF)

Notas Para una Poética Oposicionista
Erica Hunt

I’m Not There: Juan Luis Martínez’s La Nueva Novela 
Introduction, Mónica de la Torre

Juan Luis Martinez Poems 
Translation, Mónica de la Torre

Sobre John Ashbery: “La voz, las voces”
Introducción, Roberto Echavarren

John Ashbery Poemas
Traducción, Roberto Echavarren

From Jorge Santiago Perednik’s The Shock of the Lenders
Introduction & translation, Molly Weigel

“It’s a Great Thing, Poetry”: Interview with José Viñals | “Es una cosa muy grande, la poesía”: Entrevista con José Viñals
Benito del Pliego & Andrés Fisher

Harryette Mullen Poemas
Traducción, Pedro Serrano

Carmen Berenguer Poems
Translation, Mariela Griffor

De Mi Vida de Lyn Hejinian
Introducción & traducción, Tatiana Lipkes

From Oliverio Girondo’s In the Moremorrow
Translation, Molly Weigel

Tom Raworth Poemas  
Traducción, Gabriela Jauregui

S/N: NewWorldPoetis
ed. Espina & Bernstein

contents of all issues, web version of issue #1

American Quarterly, which at the time was the true home in print of the surging postwar “American Studies” (or: “American Civilization”) movement in academe, sought out poet Louise Bogan to write a short summary of “Modernism in American Literature.” It was published in the Summer 1950 issue. Bogan (1897-1970) was very loosely associated with Euro-American poetic modernism of the 1920s, and perhaps it helped that her first book was published in 1923, the time of Harmonium. Her particular Eliot was the writer who’d discovered a modern mode as part of a “personal point of departure [from] Elizabeth drama and the irony of Jules Laforgue.”  She admired the way Yeats and Pound “achieved modernity” yet happily distinguished them from the real thing: “Eliot,” on the other hand, “was modern from the start.”

Bogan, in my view, was essentially done as a poet of significance in 1941, by which time, in any case, most of her poems had been published. She stayed with us a long time, though, and that’s because she’d been hired by the New Yorker to be their main poetry reviewer, holding that powerful position for 38 years, until 1969. I suspect most poetry people would thus know her from the byline on all those short New Yorker notices. (There is, to be sure, a corridor in the house of poetry along which Bogan is said to be “the most accomplished woman poet of the twentieth century.” So begins the introductory note on her at the Poetry Foundation web site.)

So it’s 1950, precisely midcentury, and time for the American Studies community to say something about modernism from that seemingly pivotal temporal vantage. In the piece Bogan is going along just fine, reviewing fifty or so years of American modernism. She waits until near the end of the piece to lower the boom on experimentalism. Anyone who has read my book, Counter-Revolution of the Word, will find these statements actually quite typical of the Cold War.  Yet their confident wrong-headedness — on top of a very specific but unmentioned ideological context — nonetheless feels astonishingly complete. 

First, we find that “it is becoming evident [though evidence is not offered] that the experimental side of literature must adjust itself to 'reality' and to the changes in the human situation.” That’s a standard way, at the time, of referring to the Cold War, but note that by way of a conjunction such a contingency is connected to a vague, much larger species-level change. Is that a modal shift in existence in response to existential threats of nuclear annihilation? Or does she really mean a species inherence, a change of being? In any case, experimental poets need to get with the consolidating program, the new “realities” of 1950. 

Bogan insists she does not want to “abolish” a “continued ‘openness’” in avant-garde writing — although that openness is in doubt, somehow, via the scare quotes; she only wants experimental writers to know that they “must not insist upon a stubborn avant-gardism” when “no real need for a further restless forward movement any longer exists.” It’s 1950, and things are going along just fine. Why keep pushing forward? This is a moment for “a consolidation of resources” (not clear what that means in terms of poetry — magazines? Creative Writing programs? prizes?). And it’s time to look back, to “canvass” the “ground already gained.”  Quite aside from the quality of the work, anyway, we all know there are many “charlatans, power-lovers, and blageurs” within “the experimental side” of the contermpoary poetry world, such that putting an end to the assumption that New is good is a move toward overall health and sanity in the arts. Much healthier to interpret than to explore.  Now that experimentalism is exhausted, it’s time to understand [the ills of?] "‘Futurist’ idolatry” (for instance) rather than to participate in it. “Interpretation, rather than exploration . . . is the task of the moment and of any imaginable future.” “[A]ny”? There’s an astonishing degree of certainty here.