To the betterment of our cultural landscape, a number of works by Raúl Zurita have been recently translated into English. Much of this work centers on the nightmare of Chile’s Pinochet era. While other writers have tackled this subject, mostly while in exile, Zurita remained in Chile, a direct witness to the terror that began on September 11, 1973 and remained beyond the seventeen years of Pinochet’s rule. Zurita, like so many, was captured and tortured. Unlike so many, he lived to tell the tale. His work exists in opposition to the dictatorship and, by extension, the long, terrible history of man’s inhumanity to man. The latest of his translated books, Song of His Disappeared Love (Action Books) is more than a reflection on the disappeared, tortured, and murdered; it is a direct confrontation. The reader is beset by the poem, forced to parse through the language and face the horror head on. His writing—often surreal and incantatory—rides the crest of the avant-garde without succumbing to empty abstractions, urging the reader to look directly into the abyss and yet, oddly, conveying a sense of hope. Within the elusive moments are punctuations of astonishing imagery. To this reader, the image that refuses to die is that of the disappeared thrown from helicopters into the sea and the mouths of volcanoes, unseen but impossible to ignore.
Song of His Disappeared Love, written in 1985, first addressed this grisly practice of discarding the dead at a time when such actions were well known and never spoken of. Years after the Pinochet era, the truth was made officially known. By then, it might have felt like the news was far too late. Chile already knew. Zurita knew. His testament is his poem through which the discarded dead have a voice. Zurita made them the focus of INRI (recently published by Marick Press, translated by William Rowe), written after Ricardo Lagos made the news public in 2001. If his subject is made overt in INRI, whereas it is implied in Song of His Disappeared Love, one can forgive the latter (or former, depending on your taste). In a time when self-censorship is the natural result of governmental oppression, what is left to the poet but codes? Song of His Disappeared Love employs such coding, though it never feels dense or obscure. Zurita’s voice (expertly translated by Daniel Borzutzky) explodes off the page. The horror is direct and the interrogation is clear. Zurita is not a symbolist; he is a poet of accusation, testimony, and intensity rarely seen today. In the face of indescribable pain, the poet burns himself, as Zurita did in protest. He writes poems on the page, in the sky, and bulldozes them into the desert (all of which Zurita has done—the residents of the Atacama in Chile still preserve his words “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” in the sand). The poet creates more than poetry; he fashions a new language that best captures his subject. Song of His Disappeared Love is Zurita writing in that new tongue, seeking to give voice to more than the individual. The poem, while mourning the dead and confronting the living, unites other countries with Chile in a series of “niches” that smashes borders. In this sense, Zurita’s poem is, to paraphrase Roque Dalton, like bread: for everyone.
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