Zurita’s 7 Night Boatmen
Third Movement (The Survivor)
for Raúl Zurita
* * *
I wrote the poem “Third Movement (The Survivor)" in my apartment in Brooklyn, on Franklin St. Zurita was living in Boston then where he taught and so he was “close at hand” and I could speak with him often. In front of me was a poster I had bought at the MET that depicted the great “Wave Off Kanagawa” that so many know as “The Wave,” a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Hokusai. When I wrote the poem, I was finishing El Cuaderno de Edimburgo and the poem was part of eight movements. A movement is a gesture directed towards something or someone, this makes its way towards Zurita and his “Night Boatmen.” When I finished writing, I called Boston and read it over the phone to him.
When I did the seven etchings for the seven “Night Boatmen,” the boat that was in the back of my mind was the Maipo, the ship where 21-year-old Zurita was held prisoner with eight hundred others for months. One day he told me that they fed them through a top hatch. Pinochet’s men threw the food, and to get the students and people e they capturedthere they piled it in busses with no seats, like logs about to be burned. All private acts were public, as if the bone of cruelty was stripping people of intimate acts. Nevertheless, a little while ago on a call (uninentionally but curiously made on September 11th, anniversary of the coup) he told me that the boats he had been thinking of were the ones that navigated the rivers of Chile carrying goods to Argentina. For me it was the drama of the Maipo. He himself leaned towards the boats of Chile. What’s paradoxical is that there is blood in his poems-nightmares.
I believe, and have written other times, that in a part of the memory I’m about to cite, Zurita erased the distinction between the sea and the sky, which is so distinctive of his poetry:
It’s summer and we’ve left the house of General del Canto for a few days to go to a spa resort. It must be February because shortly before it was the anniversary and we went to the cementery. I cannot separate the two images. We traveled together with a former co-worker of my mother’s and her three children. Resting in the common room window my sister and I watched the ocean from which the shore went curving upward like a ribbon, as if the sky rose up from us. There was no horizon. The gleam of the sea has an overwhelming intensity and its whiteness suddenly reminds me of the gravestones where our grandmother tells us her husband and father lie. The resort is called Pichilemu and we have arrived by train. In the photograph the two children have straw hats and are wearing shorts; the younger one is crying, the older one is smiling, holding a bucket of wood.
Zurita maintains some equation between cinema and sky, as if the sky was a big projection space. He himself sent me this paragraph that he wrote about the sky:
The sky is that place where, since time immemorial, communities have turned their eyes because they’ve believed that there, engraved, are the signs of their lives and destinies. Now the dream is for us to draw on that same sky the poem of a new life and a new destiny.
So Zurita, in the sky above New York, wrote with five planes...on June 2nd, 1982. He explains that he was on the ground watching the writing. He imagined those Boatmen as a big projection on the sky, but it being impossible, it had to be a poem. Zurita: I write the dream that I cannot make.
Zurita originally studied engineering. Purgatory, his first book, already contains some equations. This equals this. This also leads to the changing of identities. In “My name is Raquel,” the Boatmen take the place of the other Boatmen, like P (Paulina, his wife) who in the end becomes a boatmen too: I made a note of you here, P, because you are the fourth boatmen of the night.” Another equation: “Our boats are two cities full of blood.”
As I’ve already said, I believe these seven nightmares are individual, but Zurita clarifies that everything comes from a single nightmare (in the blog Cormac appears in the original dream and the drop of dye painting the sea appears as correcting my illusion about it). And it confirms what João Cabral de Melo Neto says about this: “the dream is another creation.”
In my poem I’m not ready for Zurita to disappear. I write: “I can’t even imagine a day when the farthest mountain and tallest waves will witness a world in which you don’t exist.” Nor can I do it in real life. With his Boatmen, Zurita prepares himself for his disappearance. Cabral de Melo Neto says: "sleeping is a way of rehearsing death."
I believe some part of Zurita is thinking of Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo. I believe this because he wrote in The Whitest Day about how Veli—his grandmother—used to read to him as a boy (always The Divine Comedy) and this was a connection she made to the French:
The other is Victor Hugo. He doesn’t like the French, he says to sono palloni de fumo, which are smoke-filled balls, but Victor Hugo speaks with a passion that can turn into delirium. He narrates to us in each one of his novels his characters, his plots, but there is no title that permeates the skin like Punta de Lobos, Pichilemu, or the inspiring: Toilers of the Sea...I follow the plot of Toilers of the Sea and feel the roar of the surf, the rocks rising from amid the waves, the storms, which get confused with the voice of my grandmother until I fall asleep, remembering, among wooden docks packed with the faces of those who accompany me.
In another post I wrote about the history of the Boatman of the assault. It appears here. The boatman that Zurita defended with his teeth (from the memory)...is the boatman where P turns into a trace and escapes him by hand.
Zurita’s poems are always returning to a perfect time and in a minimum turn, he’s always realizing that this is impossible. In his Boatmen, hell is irreversible too. Zurita lost his father when he was two. His grandfather died two days later mourning the death of his son. So Zurita was raised by women, his grandmother, his mother and her sister. Zurita told me recently that the sixth boatman was inspired by a story by João Guimarães Rosa. Here’s what he told me over the phone:
He wants me to take his place, to be one of the boatmen...my father appears in the form of a rower, wanting me to take his place as night boatman, I ran and ran because he was old and tired and I ran away...to the third bank of the river..by Guimarães Rosa...in his story my father is with his family and soon he disappears and they see him in a boat, and his son grows up and when he is big he’s going to find his father and when he gets closer he pulls up and runs away...
After etching the seven “Night Boatmen” and the surviving poem, I wanted them to reach all possible languages. I started with seven. All the poets and translators participated in translating one, two on occasion (like Karin Hanta who translated the seventh one about the assault into German).
They read in New York, in the afternoon of May 1st, 2009, at the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, thanks to the generosity of Sandra García and the help of Diana Caba and these poets and translators’ love of poetry, and to his sense of adventure, Raúl Zurita who took this crazy boat ride and went to New York and read with them and listened to these languages, his song of blood and rivers and farther away the traces of men rowing.
Os boteros da noite/ Gabriel Amor /Galician
Gaueko batelariak/ Isabel Cadenas Cañón / Basque
Les bateliers de la nuit/ Étienne Dobenesque/ French
Die Schiffer der Nacht / Karin Hanta/ German (read by the German actor Lenz Von Johnston)
Els boteros de la nit /Maelción Mateu/ Catala
Translated from the Spanish by Torin Jensen.
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...