In responsive commentaries on my earlier note memorializing the death of Pablo Neruda, several people mentioned the living Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. During the Pinochet regime, Zurita had the guts to bulldoze a poem into the sand of the Atacama Desert. It read ni pena ni miedo: neither pain nor fear.
 Long ago, it would have been obliterated by rains and wind, but the people in the nearest village still carry shovels into the desert on Sundays and they turn over the sand of the letters to keep it fresh. In 2001, the President of Chile announced on TV something that most people already knew: that the bodies of hundreds of people who disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship would never be found because they had been thrown out of airplanes into the Pacific Ocean and into the mouths of volcanoes.

Zurita had written about those crimes in an earlier book published in 1985, Canto a su amor desaparecido (Song to Their Vanished Love),
 just translated by Daniel Borzutzky (and looking for publisher). In 2005, Zurita took up the subject again in a book titled INRI
. Translated into English by William Rowe, INRI
 will be published by Marick Press in Spring 2009.
Then, in Fall 2009, University of California will bring out PURGATORIO
 (published in Spanish in 1979) as PURGATORY
 in Anna Deeny’s translation. In shreds of lyric and vivid fragments, Zurita (who mutilated his own face in an act of protest) channels a long howl of pain and rage against the military dictatorship that savaged Chile. (And yet, like all his works, it is also a poem of unbearable tenderness and love).
Zurita in Santiago in 2006
These are both books that speak to us and to our blood-soaked moment of history. Keep your eye out for them. And for Zurita too. Although he has been in shaky health for the last few years, he may be coming to give a series of readings in the U.S. in the spring. You won’t want to miss him.

Originally Published: September 29th, 2008

Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...

  1. September 30, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Zurita is one of the living greats.
    I have a piece about him coming out soon. The photo Forrest provides is also part of my essay (thanks for preempting me, Forrest). It is the largest poem in the world, rivaling the scale of the Nazca plain drawings... Um, "Conceptual Poets" of the English-speaking sphere, you have some catching up to do...
    Zurita happens to be the model (a perverse one, to be sure) of the main character of Bolano's Distant Star, the fascist poet-pilot, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle: Zurita famously sky-wrote a poem over NYC in the early 80s, covering some 15 kilometers. Bolano, a Trotskyist, hated Zurita (a member of the Communist Party at the time) for assuming a ministerial post in the bourgeois government of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, after the fall of Pinochet. Well, in Latin America, poetry scandals can be more than tempests in teapots!
    Long live poetry written across the mountains and the sky.

  2. September 30, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    Typically, Zurita has only kind things to say about Roberto Bolano,despite. Big-hearted poet.

  3. September 30, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Yes, and big-nosed, too!
    A lovely man...

  4. October 5, 2008
     Forrest Gander

    Also forthcoming, and from an excellent poet and translator, is Daniel Borzutzky's translation of Zurita's Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido (mentioned in my note)-- now looking for a publisher!

  5. October 5, 2008
     Boyd Nielson

    Dear Forrest,
    Thanks for this. And while we’re on the topic of the Atacama desert and the legacies of Pinochet, perhaps also we should be reminded of the miners strike at the Escondida Mine in 2006, which mine of course is located not (that) far from Raúl Zurita’s poem. Obviously, Chile is a different place today, and we all should be comforted that an aging Pinochet was finally arrested and held in London. But where is the court that will do the same to bhp Billiton and other multinationals that have relentlessly exploited workers and resources (not to mention the governments who let–enable–them to do it)?
    Of course, there is none, and that is why workers went on strike in the first place. ni pena ni miedo I will say this in an aside though: In view of the tempestuousness of the other, “pirated anthology” thread, Kent has a point about the teapot inclinations and obsessions of American poets. Whatever else the local people are doing who, as you observe, “still carry shovels into the desert on Sundays and […] turn over the sand of the letters to keep [the poem] fresh,” I doubt they are expressing much affection for Zurita’s “rep.” And surely the threats of and/or calls for lawsuits against the authors of the pirated anthology (which even Silliman happily notes, and seems to celebrate, on his blog) say much more about American fantasies of judicial justice than they do about the potential for such so-called vandalism either to produce or confront anything that resembles an actual crime.