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