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A Leopard Never Changes Its Spots: On Zurita and Memory

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The expression “genio y figura hasta la sepultura,” in Spanish (here translated as “a leopard never changes its spots,” and equivalent to the expression “genius and character from cradle to grave”), denotes a characteristic of someone that doesn’t change over time. It’s a distinctive action that you recognize as the person’s own, a distinctive feature that distinguishes him from everyone else. It also has the connotation that it’s something the person cannot escape, something he would always do even in spite of himself. This grace, the grace that exceeds even the will, is how Raúl Zurita, at two different times in his life, managed to retain his own poetry in his memory.

Perhaps those closest to him would say “look at him, a leopard never changes its spots.” In my friendship with Zurita, that fact is his love of memory, which I’ve seen unfold on the table no matter what happened around him. The first example of this that comes to mind is when we came to Mexico City, when he read at a festival where Ernesto Cardenal was also reading, and when Cardenal read his Ode to Marilyn Monroe, Zurita mumbled it to himself, by heart. As if from a homily he recited a well-known prayer (like when someone touches their ear whenever a door closes, and does so every time). At the end of this event we walked through the streets of Mexico City’s centro, I want to say Donceles Streeet, where at Number 12, one hundred years earlier, my grandmother lived. Now the centro is a cacophonous world, amidst thousands and thousands of voices, drums, birds for sale, hawkers, cars, musical horns, simultaneously co-existing, the deafening effect of the present in the city’s center (that site from the castle that Bernal Díaz said was full of voices of birds and silent people). And it was here that Zurita stopped short, reciting to me from memory a fragment from Hosea, where it names the daughter and the son...and later repudiates them: unloved, not my people...later reconciled with them:
"I will call them My people, who were not My people, 
And her beloved, who was not beloved."

It had the effect of a movie that focuses for a moment on the rest of the actors while the voice continues off-screen, but feeling this was impossible in reality, the voice of Zurita and his litany, the little hand movements that aren’t afraid to accompany the rhythm of his words...continuing later...for some reason I don’t remember Psalm 137, the one that begins...The rivers of Babylonia...Zurita recalling a phrase, in Biblical flow one after another without pause, completely erasing every noise...

Memory, essential to Zurita’s verbal body, is exerted lovingly in his book El día más blanco / The Whitest Day (Alfaguara, 2000), as if love and memory were two hands stretching to touch the elusive body of beauty. It’s a book where he carries out the advice Rilke gave to Franz Xavier Kappus in his letters to the young poet, in which he hears pass by in the distance, far away, the noise of the others: “try bringing out the submerged sensations of that wide past; your personality will consolidate, your loneliness will spread, and it will stay in the shadows, where you hear passing by, far away, the noise of the others.” When I reread this I better understand what happened that afternoon in el centro, and what has happened to me each time I read The Whitest Day. This is the passage I want to focus on, where Zurita defines memory as a site:

It is the fabric upon which things are suspended, because it’s not love that survives but the nuances that hang for a moment on faces. Those we loved are woven into these nuances: the more definite of these traits are true angles of their countenance, just a bias or a detail of the smile that appears to us as soon as it returns to dissolve into the unfathomable. The countenance of Veli, her long, sharp nose, her small eyes, her wrinkles, they emerge from the bottom of the weave as if I was the one who wanted to escape, as if I wanted to arrange myself and I or what became of me, my shadow, something was already beyond arranging. In reality, memories are always there, like stones, and it is us who approach them or not, us who appear or disappear from their faces, from their bodies, losing ourselves in a diffuse border like trails of dimming car lights in the fog.

The book continues from there, recording and at the time defining his relationship with memory, as if in the act of recording Zurita stood among men, and it was his relationship with memory (of books, personal and historical) that distinguished him from everyone else.

Nine years ago, when I met him, I did an interview for a local magazine and we published it with photos I took of Zurita on the beach...I only have one, under a thatched roof, that I include at the head of this post.

VM: I know you studied engineering as a profession and when you were arrested by the military you had a folder of poems with you. What were these poems they finally took from you (I think you had them in your teeth and the soldier threw them into the sea)?

RZ: I was 23, they were poems I wrote on a typewriter, I knew them by heart and later they formed part of my first book. It was funny, how some of them were visual, one was a triangle with fish, the military men that captured me thought they were written in code. In reality they cost me a tremendous beating and when one of them finally realized they were “poems” he threw them into the sea. If they are in Purgatory it’s only because I memorized them.

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And in a phone call I just had with him (Saturday, August 24th, 7 pm via Skype) Zurita confirmed that he wrote on a typewriter, and if he made a mistake he would retype the entire poem from the beginning, calling my attention to the fact that with the use of a computer a poet doesn’t have to start over when he changes a word. And that it was by accident that perfectionism joined with his memory and saved him from oblivion. Yet his love of memory came from a more distant place:

RZ: My grandmother [Veli] came to Chile with my mother, who was 15. My father died at 31 when I was 2 and my only sister one-month old. My mother worked and we stayed with her everyday. My grandmother always said what the country had become was a pity and since then I have lived memories of her telling us about Italy, of its sea, of its artists and Dante. She told us Italian stories from The Divine Comedy that we didn’t understand. She never returned to Italy and when she died she had forgotten what little Spanish she knew, in addition to her Italian, from speaking only the language I imagine from her distant, happy times: Genoese. She is the person I have loved most in my life and who later made me realize that when writing I always went to the image of The Divine Comedy, but not in an intellectual way, but like making a new present with my grandmother, it was like hearing her again. It’s curious, four years after she died I came to know Italy for the first time where I lived for five years and I know at last that the only reason I was there was because I had taken responsibility for her nostalgia.

So thanks to the mark his grandmother Veli left on the life of this Chilean poet I have gotten to live “holy hours” listening to him recite the end of Dante’s Paradiso...and it will make sense for those reading this that he now finds himself engaged in translating in verse The Divine Comedy since he finished writing his last book, his Zurita. The translation is another loving act of his memory.

The sketch of his personality, as Rilke said, “is profound” in the use of his memory, but it also has its comedic side (this is one area where that personality trait exceeds his control and gets him into trouble) and so I’ll show the function of his memory, told to me via email, while he was writing The Cities of Water (which I’m now translating, along with E.M. Test) and was busy in a section called The Night Boatmen (from which, in those days, I did seven engravings of seven poems that were translated into seven languages, but I’ll talk about that in the next blog) when suddenly he was assaulted and his act of life would have become an act of death. He wrote this to me the day after they assaulted him, one Halloween night, in his house in Santiago, Chile:

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006, 6:12pm

Dear Valerie,

As you always say, life doesn’t cease being interesting... because it could have been worse. They attacked our house at 11 at night, I was alone with the youngest boy. They pointed a gun at Paulina when she got in the car, they got in too, there were seven men with Halloween masks and guns, they tied us up and covered us with a blanket, with shoves and more yelling and things that shouldn’t happen to us anymore, they stole the car, computers, and everything, and they left us absolutely $0 but it could have been much worse. Luck was on the side of Paulina’s daughter, who’s 16 years-old, she’s very pretty and those were thugs, thugs. I discovered some things of mine they left intact (thank goodness), but something else is a little insane, I had just finished a poem about the boatmen that had cost me blood and tears, and I tried to negotiate with them tied up and beneath the blanket, “let me save the poem to a disc,” crazy huh? Let me save a disc with the poem in the middle of an assault. Paulina was tied up next to me and told me in whispers: “please shut up they’re going to kill you!” I stopped, but I began to recite the poem mentally to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. Just as those guys left, Paulina’s ex-husband came to drop off another boy (Paulina has three) and he came across the assailants. He untied us, so now we are friends (there is a popular song that says: me cae bien tu ex-marido / I like your ex-husband...) Benjamín, my wife’s son, the 10 year-old boy (the one that was with me) impressed me, he didn’t move a hair. The police came 15 minutes later and while they came in and took pictures and took our statements, spoke on their radios, and found tracks and all the paraphernalia, I re-wrote the poem by hand. I managed to reconstruct it. I send you a big hug, how hard these things are when you change your lifestyle. We had managed to get out at night and leave the three boys alone, now neither dead, and I don’t think I dare leave Paulina alone for awhile so traveling to Mexico now is very difficult. I send you dear Valerie another big, big hug. I just recopied the poem on this computer. As this boatman had his mishaps I transcribe it to you. I think this is it:

His figures kept on fading in the overwhelming plain of
the sky while a little lower down, also crossed by the
morning light, the wooden planks of the boat pitched out
of the blood-stained water with great difficulty. It was
the night’s fifth boatman. His upturned face seemed to
scream, and behind him the silhouettes of the other group
piled up at the stern, squeezed so tightly together as if
they blanketed each other. Little by little, the growing
clarity began to blend figures together, and when they
finally disappeared entirely the sky’s nakedness opened
like an infinite and white emptiness. A little before dawn,
I managed to see him: cut out against daybreak his hands
had just abandoned the oars and the boat was about to
capsize in a coagulated river of blood. We were six and I
squeezed against the boatman’s back. During a few hours
our features poured onto the sky, but arriving at midday
only an incommensurable horizon and the sun’s brilliance
blinding the earth only remained. When I tried to avail
myself of you, P, your outlines had been erased.
I tried to cling to you desperately while the waves
dragged you onward, the clotted waves of the night’s
bloodied river, and all the land swollen. At the end, I
dropped the oars. When the sun emerged, we had
shipwrecked. Now it is morning and you have awoken.
You come down the stairs half asleep, glance at these
notes and later tell me to lie down. I rise from a
shipwreck and go up with you. I enter. There is the
bedroom. There is the plain of the sky beyond our orbit.

Raúl Zurita, a leopard that never changes its spots. A moment ago I asked him if he knew which had been “The boatman from the assault” in that sequence of poems and he answered without hesitation: number five. Now, it’s going to be 7 years to the day since that Halloween night when he pleaded with the attackers to let him save that poem.

Translated from the Spanish by Torin Jensen. The "Night Boatmen" poem was translated from the Spanish by E.M. Test.

Originally Published: September 16th, 2013

Painter and poet Valerie Mejer was born in Mexico City. Her poems explore containment and fragility, layering loss and possibility over a once-familiar landscape. She is the author of the poetry collections Rain of the Future (2013), translated by C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Alexandra Zelman; de la ola, el atajo (2009); Geografías de Niebla...