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An introduction to Zurita

Forrest Gander

Raul Zurita started out studying mathematics, much as his fellow Chilean, Nicanor Parra started out studying physics (and earning a degree at Brown University), before turning to poetry. While Zurita's early literary work might be understood, in part, as a ferocious response to the Chilean September 11, which occurred in 1973 when Pinochet took power in the Golpe de Estado, Zurita has been a prolific writer and in the forty years since publication of that book, Purgatory, he has given voice, scream and whisper to the soul of Chile, its sky, its cordilleras, its oceans, pampas, deserts, and its wracked conscience, he has written its love song in the same visionary, albeit more agonized, way that Whitman wrote the great love song to our nation. As much as any poet ever, Zurita was given his subject material; he did not choose it.

Like many other Chileans under Pinochet's dictatorship, Zurita was arrested and abused after Pinochet took control. When he was released, he helped to form a radical artistic group CADA, and he became renowned for his provocative and intensely physical public performances. In the early 80's, Zurita skywrote poems over New York City and later (still during the reign of Pinochet), he bulldozed the phrase Ni Pena Ni Miedo (Without Pain Or Fear) into the Atacama Desert. His work has incorporated not only massive landscape sculpture and aerial writing, but sonograms, archival photos, performance, pictograms, mathematical propositions, and drawings.

His most recent book, Zurita, opens with several pages of images of massive Chilean cliffs rising from the Pacific Ocean. The book ends with words Zurita imagines carved into those cliffs. They are prophetic and memorial and they call to our minds the thousands of people who were murdered and dropped from planes and helicopters in pieces onto those rocks and into that ocean during the reign of Pinochet. He has written «Quizás Zurita eso sea el mar. Un limbo donde los cuerpos caen.» In this sense, Zurita's work is absolutely Chilean.

But the imagination of his poems reaches out to those who have suffered everywhere -from children working in the sex industry to families obliterated at Hiroshima, from an inspector at Auschwitz to American bombadiers. His work is concerned with the justice of acknowledgement, with the recognition that all of us are involved in each other and redeemed by each other only through love for which Zurita's poems try to find an adequate language. His body of work is a radical engagement with empathy and forgiveness and in this sense, it isn't Chilean. It isn't even merely international in its scope. It is profoundly human.

For fifteen years, Zurita worked on a trilogy that is considered one of the signal poetic achievements in Latin American poetry. The third book The New Life, which Anna Deeny has just finished translating, was originally published in 1993. Before that Ante-Paradise was published in 1982. The first book, which appeared in 1979, was Purgatory.

Purgatory dropped into Santiago like a smoking chunk of volcanic basalt that so reeked of the underworld it reminded people -the couples going to movies despite the disappearances, the writers arguing about structuralism while other writers were tortured, the conflicted who could still arrange exile, the enraged youths plotting acts of resistance- that they were alike, suffering a hellish after-life in which their souls were at stake.

Like American poet Charles Reznikoff, who looks «Among the heaps of brick and plaster» to find «a girder, still itself among the rubbish»1, Zurita, in all his books, gazes at the tottering wreckage of self and country with the hope that he might yet find some durable faith to bind himself, and all of us, to the world. To do this, Zurita has to position himself along the razor -edge of many borders- the borders of habitable landscapes, of sanity, of normative grammar, of identity, gender, and sexuality.

If narrative substantiates the rationality of experience, Zurita finds it inadequate to deal with large scale pain and suffering. With each book, he blazes new literary forms.

Raul Zurita is one of a handful of the most important contemporary poets -not simply in Latin American but in the world, and he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Literary Prize of Chile.

Three newly translated books, INRI, translated by William Rowe, Song of the Missing Love, translated by Daniel Borzutzky, and Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny, have been published in the United States in the last two years from, respectively, Merick Press, Action Books, and The University of California.

Zurita's most recent book in Spanish, Zurita, is not his autobiography but the poetic biography of this, our beautiful, bloodstained moment on earth among others.

Among Zurita's most recent books in Spanish are:

  • INRI (2004)
  • Los países muertos (2006; The Dead Countries)
  • Poemas de amor (2007; Poems of Love)
  • Cinco fragmentos (2007; Five Fragments)
  • Las ciudades de agua (2008; Cities of Water)
  • Zurita: In Memoriam (2008)
  • Zurita (2011)

In English:

  • Purgatory, Jeremy Jacobson, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1985
  • Anteparadise, Jack Schmitt, U of CA, 1986
  • Inri, translated by William Rowe, Marick Press, 2009.
  • Song of the Missing Love, translated by Daniel Borzutzky, Action Books, 2009
  • Purgatory, translated by Anna Deeny, University of CA Press, 2009