The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, blind, dared to say anything that happens to an artist that does not destroy them is a gift. I don’t know whether the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita would agree that his, for instance, extreme suffering at the hands of one of the world’s ugliest regimes, led by the CIA-backed Augusto Pinochet, was a gift. I don’t think it was a gift that drove Zurita to try to blind himself in the midst of it, when he was no longer interested in seeing what was unfolding. For seeing, in a certain sense, can cease to become anything so noble as witness or resistance, can maybe feel—I am guessing—like further torment or, worse, an act of complicity. This feeling may be one reason Zurita’s breathtaking oeuvre, some of which was gathered in English a few years ago in Sky Below: Selected Works, often gives us a voice—as rendered brilliantly by Anna Deeny Morales—impatient with description. Not at all opposed to it, master of it in quick bursts, but not keen to dwell in that mode, driven instead by the urgency experienced in dreams, never far from the rawness of existential panic, drawn on by a nervy and radically desperate beauty. Here’s an untitled sampling from INRI, a book that takes its name from the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Zurita’s description of a landscape blossoms impossibly like an heroic simile, a baroque flowering that shifts suddenly back into Kurosawa-like dream-narrative:
[…] In the foreground the white
breaker rises and falls. The small cities are white
on the paths at night. They look like luminous
flakes that appear for a moment and then nothing.
Someone heard them, and now they’re thousands
of white faces, with teeth slightly reddened and the
hollows of their eyes empty. My love letters. Then
I cross small towns at night. I cross furs mottled
with blood. Both are slight […]
Zurita, who studied engineering and mathematics, and at one point survived by selling computers door-to-door, writes poetry that sometimes consists of pictographs, sometimes formulas like math problems of the spirit—“Areas N = The Hunger of My Heart”—or subpointed sequences, like “The Beaches of Chile” series. Not a direct description of the beaches, but an account of the suffering in and around that stark beauty, the psychic account of the experience of a particular place in a particular time, which yet has a feeling of myth to it: “i. Soaked in tears he threw his vestments to the water / ii. Naked you’d have seen him huddled coiled upon himself shaking with his hands covered over the swarm at his wounds.” Zurita once years ago (there are pictures in Sky Below) had some of his poetry written by airplane in the firmament over New York City, a gesture that signals his ambition, his anti-provincialism, and maybe his ironical and worldly understanding of where certain kinds of power gather—he didn’t write these lines over Valparaiso or Santiago, where he was born. It was a ritual signaling his willingness to suspend the orthodoxies of even the page itself.
Which is to say, his relationship to limits—limits of all kind—suggests his genius, for he seems to sense that limits (such as the edges of language, the edges of a life) are and are not real and final, even limits imposed arbitrarily and terribly, like dictatorship or dying. Coexistence with such a reality—our reality—is a tricky business, and Zurita’s poetry offers one way, or the record of one man’s way, of mapping it without losing your mind or your will or your way. A way to face even the realities that can’t be seen. This is a poet who writes a little fable not so much of as in the shadow of the political nightmare of a collapsing social order. Not so hard for Americans to imagine anymore. A poet whose lines are sliced unnaturally, often breaking jaggedly in Spanish at the logistical helper-word “que,” and at “the” in the English version. In one of his poems about the human face—and so many of Zurita’s poems seem to gesture at, or openly make a subject of that irreducible stamp of our subjectivity—the lines are replete with a characteristic mythic compression, that vividness impatient with emplotment and extensive description, vividness which nonetheless claims a time and place:
With my face blood-soaked I called at his door:
Could you help me—I said—I’ve got some
friends out here
“Go away—he replied—before I kick the
shit out of you”
Come on—I reminded him—sir you know they
also turned Jesus back.
“You’re not Jesus—he answered—get or I’ll
break your face. I’m not your father”
Please—I insisted—they’re your sons …
“Fine”—he said calming down—“take them to
the promised land”
Okay, but where is that place?—I asked—
Then, as if it were a star that spoke, he
“Far off, in those lost cordilleras of Chile”
JESSE NATHAN: Many of your poems seem to move like dreams and yet also to move through history. The poems in Zurita, for example, imagine September 10, 1973, and the gesture reminds me of Czesław Miłosz taking us in a poem to the night of August 31, 1939. And then there’s the way you weave things together: the insignificant imagined alongside the momentous. What can a poet say to history? How does a poem intervene in time, or in history? And what is the responsibility of a poet toward the human body?
RAÚL ZURITA: Often when I write I am overwhelmed by a strange sensation. It is as if I were taking an exam for which the examiners have disappeared. I’m ignorant of the questions, but I must answer them somehow, knowing ahead of time that, whatever your answer, it will always be wrong and that the punishment for the error is inevitable. You are in the center of the plaza, the pyre is lit and awaits you. Writing is like the ashes that remain from a burned body. In order to write it is necessary to burn yourself entirely, consume yourself to the point that not even a sliver of muscle or bone or flesh remains. It is an absolute sacrifice and at the same time it is the suspension of death. When writing, you suspend life, and so also suspend death. The instant in which you are being burned by the mistake of your words is the same instant in which that infinite cloud of wrong answers also burns, wrong answers which we, as if in a dream, have called El Quijote, Hamlet, Inferno, The Brothers Karamazov, and Residence on Earth. I draw back, then, and awaken, I see the mound of ashes of my poem scattered on the ground and I get up. I write because it is my private exercise of resurrection.
I have believed that there is no before and no after in poetry, that all poems are being written simultaneously, and that they are answers to questions that even now have not been formulated. The central theme of poetry is time, and that one of those times, just one of them, is what we call history. Poetry is the most vast and desperate effort to say with words from this world things that no longer make up this world. We die there, in that radical defeat and failure, because the work never was to write poems or paint pictures; the work was to make of the world something decent, and the pulverized remains of that work cover the world as if they were the debris of a battle atrociously lost.
More and more I see my poems as ruins, they refer often to things that are happening but as if they had happened thousands of years ago. I have written from a body that is bent over, that has become stiff under the effects of Parkinson’s, that trembles, that goes forward and falls, and I have found my infirmity to be beautiful, I have felt that my tremors are lovely, that the challenge of holding up these pieces of paper that I now read is lovely. I have written about that body, about the pains that I myself have caused others and that I have inflicted on myself, I have recorded my poems on its skin. I have come to believe that only the sick, the weak, the wounded are capable of giving beauty to those ruins, that debris. Such beauty is intolerable and at the same time is the light of the world. When all of humanity bows down weeping before La Pietá, the world will have come to its end. Meanwhile, all we have are our ruins, our tiny misfortunes, our great loves, our horror, our deaths.
Translated with Daagya Dick.