• The Moon Valley, in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

    Poet of the Disappeared: On the Writing of Raúl Zurita

    "There is power and agency in staying in a dangerous place when one has the choice to leave."

    Sea of Pain is an invitation from Raúl Zurita. In 2016 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, in a dilapidated colonial warehouse, Zurita created an installation of seawater and poetry, and dedicated it to Galip Kurdi, the brother of Aylan Kurdi. Fleeing Syria, both children drowned in the Mediterranean on September 2, 2015, and Galip’s body was never found. The iconic photograph of Aylan, whose body washed up on the sand near Bodrum, Turkey, as though in a “children’s graveyard,” was taken by the Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir. “There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi, he can’t hear, he can’t see, he can’t feel. He is a representative of the other faceless forgotten in other crises and conflicts around the world,” the poet says. “I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son.” As you walk through knee-deep seawater, you read the poem written on canvases on the walls:

    In the Sea of Pain

    Don’t you listen?
    Don’t you look?
    Don’t you hear me?
    Don’t you see me?
    Don’t you feel me?
    In the sea of pain

    Won’t you come back, never
    again, in the sea of pain?

    “If water has memory, it will also remember this,” says Raúl Zurita in The Pearl Button, a film by Patricio Guzmán. About this installation, Zurita says, “It’s hope for the world, which has no hope. Possibility for the world that has no possibility. It’s love for the world that has no love.” It’s the experience of love that infuses INRI.

    Experience, from the Latin experire, means to undergo, endure, suffer. To feel, from the Latin noun periculum, which means danger, risk. What is at stake here? On the morning of September 11, 1973, the armed forces of Chile staged a coup. While the Palacio de La Moneda was being attacked, President Salvador Allende died and soon after General Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship. In Valparaíso, where he had been an engineering student, Zurita and thousands of others were rounded up and herded into the National Stadium. Zurita, along with around eight hundred others, were then packed into the hold of a ship and tortured. Some, like Zurita, were eventually let go. During those years, thousands of people “disappeared.” The authorities would not tell what had happened to them.

    Zurita chose to stay in Chile, enduring the brutal seventeen-year dictatorship when he could have gone into exile like so many others who feared for their lives. There is power and agency in staying in a dangerous place when one has the choice to leave. “I had to learn how to speak again from total wreckage, almost from madness, so that I could still say something to someone,” Zurita writes in a note about INRI, at once making clear the immediate context for its composition.

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    On January 8, 2001, in a nationally televised speech, social-democratic President Ricardo Lagos announced, with brevity, information pertaining to those who were still unaccounted for in the government-sponsored killings during the 1970s. These missing people had been kidnapped by the security forces and tortured, their eyes gouged out, and their bodies thrown from helicopters “into the ocean, the lakes, and the rivers of Chile.” And the Atacama Desert in the north. People knew about it, but there was no corroboration. Then suddenly there was.

    Looking for the disappeared was “a thorn in the country’s soul.” After this announcement, Viviana Díaz, the president of the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared, said, “I’ve spent my whole life looking for my father. Now I know I’ll never find him. . . . To discover that he is in the depths of the ocean is terrible and distressing.” Even though, as Zurita says, they knew what had happened, the actual acknowledgment, the validation, came as a shock and a rupture in time. Reports and evidence of committed poured forth. Not needing to prove the facts anymore, what does the tragedy mean? How do you carry on? How do you hold the remembering, the identification, the trauma that took place, is still taking place, taking space “to represent a memory”?

    As Emmanuel Lévinas wrote in Existence and Existents, “Being remains, like a field of forces.” From the horror that was and still is, Zurita embraces the disappeared, loving and naming them again and again, “stopping the wounds with his fingers,” touching and giving us raised dots of braille letters with the particularity of fingertips, “accustomed always to follow yours.”

    From the horror that was and still is, Zurita embraces the disappeared, loving and naming them again and again, “stopping the wounds with his fingers,” touching and giving us raised dots of braille letters with the particularity of fingertips, “accustomed always to follow yours.”

    In On Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs observes, “While the collective memory endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people, it is individuals as group members who remember.” Loose or raw memory requires a frame. Zurita says, in an interview with Daniel Borzutzky, one of his translators, “Forgetting is impossible. But what you do with that memory, what you do with that inability to forget is a different story. I think that, in terms of this reality, you are obligated to a certain intensity, a certain force. . . . Even if it’s completely utopian, completely mad, the force to continue [means] wagering on the possibility of the construction of a paradise,” and he cites Ezra Pound, Canto CXX:

    I have tried to write Paradise

    Do not move

    Let the wind speak
    that is paradise.

    Robert Duncan writes, “Poetry was a communal voice for us—it spoke as we could not speak for ourselves.” From 1979 to 1986, a collective was created called CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), which included Zurita, Fernando Balcells, Diamela Eltit, Lotty Rosenfeld, and Juan Castillo. Under the military dictatorship this was dangerous, but it was the choice at the time. Using materials at hand—spray paint, flyers, trucks, public space, and direct action, with the body as the medium of expression for the creation of a social and political art, everyone performed. This form became part of the creative process. “NO + (NO más=NO more)” was adopted as the slogan, first in Santiago, then all over the country. On June 2, 1982, in New York City, CADA used the sky as a page. Five airplanes composed fifteen lines of Zurita’s “La Vida Nueva” in the cloudless blue.

    In the preface to Purgatory in 1979, translated by Anna Deeny, Zurita imagines “these poems occupying landscapes.” In 1993, he has a line from “La Vida Nueva” bulldozed into the Atacama Desert: “NI PENA NI MIEDO” (“NEITHER PAIN NOR FEAR”). Because of the scale—two miles in length—the tracks can’t be read as writing unless seen from above, from the sky. Could this be an atavistic remembering of the largest prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world, the Atacama Giant, the geoglyph of Cerro Unita? At 390 feet in length, it is the calendar for the setting of the moon, used to conjecture the rains, to plant crops. Zurita says, “My attempt has been to pull poetry and nature together, because in the end they are the same. I have always been startled by work that refuses to acknowledge the limits of human capacity.”


    At the end of his 745-page tome Zurita (2011), he includes photographs from a future project involving an intervention in the physical landscape called “Your Life Breaking.” The photographs of the sea cliffs in northern Chile have phrases typed out across them to show the compelling installation Zurita has envisioned. These phrases, corresponding to the table of contents of Zurita, include: “You Will See Soldiers at Dawn,” “You Will See the Snows of the End,” “You Will See Cities of Water,” “You Will See What Goes,” “You Will See Not Seeing,” and “And You Will Weep.” You will see them from the ocean.

    Since the 1970s, critics have been writing about the “expanded field” and the blurring of the boundaries between land art and poetry, but this doesn’t really apply here because there is no boundary. Zurita’s installations and performative works are transdisciplinary. These poetic works are at the same time in process and timeless, boundless and intimate. Earth, sky, and water are incomparable sheets to be written upon, discovered, recovered.

    “Without poetry, it’s possible that violence would be the norm, the steady state, but because poems exist, all violence is unjustifiable, is monstrous,” Zurita has said. Francine Masiello has written in The Art of Transition that the “ethics of representation” are a “splintering of any totalizing vision” and “stands as a form of rebellion against state patterns of fixed representation . . . the expression of choice is . . . in the fragment.” The fragment evokes the sublime, how it startles itself and others. If beauty is about harmony, the sublime is disharmony, fragmentation, disruption, being on the brink, the edge of the cliff, looking out onto the numinous inconceivable. The sublime can be characterized as representing pain and pleasure in the infinite, the unknown, the limitless, beyond comprehension, beyond measure, unbounded, unthinkable, untenable, unutterable.

    “Without poetry, it’s possible that violence would be the norm, the steady state, but because poems exist, all violence is unjustifiable, is monstrous.”

    In Purgatory, Zurita silently screams, “EL INRI ES MI MENTE EL DESIERTO DE CHILE” (“THE INRI IS MY MIND THE DESERT OF CHILE”). With his immersive approach, he can already say that the INRI doesn’t “come into mind” because, like the desert, it’s already in mind, in his mind. Human=Nature. As Spinoza says in Ethics, “Each thing tends to persevere in its being. The individual therefore tends toward its limit.”

    In an interview with Ilan Stavans, Zurita says that when he was very young his Italian grandmother read him passages, parts of stories, from the Inferno. She also told him about her home in Rapallo, and about many Italian artists. Perhaps she showed him images, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his Creation of Adam, Adam, the figure of humanity, his finger almost touching God’s. What does it mean that Dante’s Commedia was told to him, like spells, in his formative years by his grandmother?

    For Zurita there are many iterations of Paradiso. He’s been working on the question of Paradise at least since the coup. From the preface of Anteparadise, translated by Jack Schmitt, “we should keep on proposing Paradise, even if the evidence at hand might indicate that such a pursuit is folly.”

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    Then, “I’ll never write a Paradise, even if such a thing were to be written today.” And from ¿Qué es el Paraíso? (1979)—“fragment encountered among the ruins”—Zurita sets out to be “a worker of Paradise, not only of art but of experience.” He proposes Paradise as a “project of the construction of a new feeling and a new social form of experience” that can transform “pain into the collective construction of new meaning.”

    INRI is a volume constructed of love and shame and mortification. The disappeared were innocents and they belong in Paradise. Through the gospels, the prophets, and Dante, the poet screaming is not holding his hands to his ears to block that screech. Rather, he is permitting the screech to blow, to explode, to translate it into a loving, startling requiem, with the Latin title for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm. And as the epigraph tells us, “if they keep silent, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Pain, “the black hole of language,” becomes elegy, the formal lament for the dead, the turbulence creating palpable love, resurrection. Writing his Paraíso through the Paradiso, the poet shows us how he is working his way from bitterness and outrage, from rain and sea to the desert, from light to sight, from horror to love, “Love! By whom Heaven is ruled” (Dante, Paradiso, translated by Reverend Henry Cary, published in 1850). From INRI, in William Rowe’s astonishing translation, the ostinato of names and loves flow forth—“unfinished loves,” “hundreds of loves,” “love cut short,” “goodbyes cut short,” “my love letters,” and “a new love.” The stretto, the breaking in, increases the emotional tension. The rain of baits becomes the rain of grace. Light brings sight, broken bodies become whole, reuniting with their souls. And “when ye shall again regain your visible forms, / the sight may without harm endure the change” (Dante, Paradiso).

    “From centre to the circle, and so back, / From circle to the centre, water moves / In the round chalice, even as the blow / Impels it” (Dante, Paradiso). Similarly, in Zurita’s fugue, the water moving, waves of water moving are understood as a discourse, the lines of the poem moving. And yet the water, like verse, is finite in volume. The verses of INRI cycle from moving to unmoving, temporality giving way to the atemporal, “and they were the plains once more.” Waves read as currents in the sky, patterns in the desert and in one’s ear. Murmuring a hymn, they crescendo into the ecstatic, in language, to narrate the passion, the blow—the coup. We, like the poet, remember the multitude of innocents. The “Epilogue”: “They are dead.” We call their names.



    From the introduction to INRI by Raúl Zurita, translated from the Spanish by William Rowe. Used with permission of NYRB. Copyright 2018 by Norma Cole.

    Norma Cole
    Norma Cole
    Norma Cole is a poet, painter, and translator. Her most recent books of poetry include Fate News, Actualities, Where Shadows Will, and Win These Posters and Other Unrelated Prizes Inside. Her translations from French include Danielle Collobert’s It Then, Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France, and Jean Daive’s White Decimal. Cole lives and works in San Francisco.

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