Strange baits rain from the sky. Surprising bait
falls upon the sea. Down below the ocean, up
above unusual clouds on a clear day. Surprising
baits rain on the sea. There was a love raining,
there was a clear day that’s raining now on the
They are shadows, bait for fishes. A clear day is
raining, a love that was never said. Love, ah yes,
love, amazing baits are raining from the sky on
the shadow of fishes in the sea.
Clear days fall. Some strange baits with clear
days stuck to them, with loves that were never
The sea, it says the sea. It says baits that rain and
clear days stuck to them, it says unfinished loves,
clear and unfinished days that rain for the fish in
You can hear whole days sinking, strange sunny
mornings, unfinished loves, goodbyes cut short
that sink into the sea. You can hear surprising
baits that rain with sunny days stuck to them,
loves cut short, goodbyes that not anymore.
Baits are told of, that rain for the fish in the sea.
The blue brilliant sea. You can hear shoals of fish
devouring baits stuck with words that not, days
and news that not, loves that not anymore.
It is told of shoals of fish that leap, of whole
whirlwinds of fish that leap.
You can hear the sky. It is told that amazing
baits rain down with pieces of sky stuck to them
upon the sea.
I heard a sea and a sky hallucinated, I heard suns
exploding with love fall like fruits, I heard
whirlwinds of fish devouring the pink flesh of
I heard millions of fish which are tombs with
pieces of sky inside, with hundreds of words that
were never said, with hundreds of flowers of red
flesh and pieces of sky in the eyes. I heard
hundreds of loves that were stopped on a sunny
day. Baits rained from the sky.
Viviana cries. Viviana heard whirlwinds of fishes
rise up in the air fighting for mouthfuls of a
goodbye cut short, of a prayer not heard, of a
love not said. Viviana is on the beach. Viviana
today is Chile.
The long fish that is Chile rises up through the
air devouring the baits of sun that are its dead.
Tremendous plains rain down for the fishes:
days that will now never be, eyes stuck to a final
sky, loves that were not said. It says tremendous
plains made of arms that couldn’t embrace, of
hands that didn’t touch. It says strange fruits
that the fish devour, that the silver tombs which
are the fish devour. I heard extraordinary plains
raining on the sea.
Extraordinary skies, days, dreams sinking into
the silver whirlpools of waves, I heard the silver
mouths of fish devouring unfinished goodbyes: I
heard immense plains of love saying that no
more. Angels, musical scores of love saying no
Universes, cosmoses, unfinished winds raining
down in thousands of pink baits on the
carnivorous sea of Chile. I heard plains of love
never said, infinite skies of love sinking into
the carnivorous tombs of the fish.
Here is the sea, it says, the carnivorous tombs of
the fish. Here is the almond-colored flesh and
the sea. The sea weeps. Viviana weeps.
There are infinite skies of almond trees, of
stars, like fruits, they say, and fall. Surprising
baits fall from the sky like the stars, like fruits
that fall on the grass. There are endless
universes in the fishes’ stomachs, stars, almond
orchards. Viviana hears immense orchards of
blood-red almond trees falling onto the sea.
Infinite clear days raining on the red foam of
People rain down and fall in strange positions
like rare fruit of a strange harvest.
Viviana hears surprising human baits raining
down, amazing human fruit harvested in
strange fields. Viviana is now Chile. She hears
human fruit raining down like golden suns
exploding on the waters.
Amazing harvests rained out of the sky.
Incredible ripe fruit upon the ploughed fields of
the sea. Viviana hears mute silhouettes fall,
minutes that did not finish, sacred crosses that
rain like clouds upon the waves of the Pacific.
She hears torsos, strange mists coming off the
waves, strange clouds of soft flesh against the
empty sky of the ocean.
Baits rain down with mouthless angels, with
scores that could not be heard, with soundless
shadows that kiss. Amazing harvests rain down,
crash down, extraordinary trees that fall
burning into the waves.
Ploughed fields, sacred lands rain from the sky
with broken backs, pieces of necks that weren’t
there anymore, unexpected clouds of unending
spring. They were thrown . They rain down.
Amazing harvests of people come down as food
for the fish in the sea. Viviana hears sacred lands
rain down, hears her son fall like a cloud onto
the unclouded cross of the Pacific.
Crosses made of fish for the Christs. The arch of
the Chilean sky falls on the bloody tombs of
Christ for the fishes. That’s your mother, there.
That’s your son. Shadows fall on the sea. Strange
human baits fall on the crosses of fish in the sea.
Viviana wants to cradle fishes in her arms, wants
to hear that clear day, that love cut short, that
unchanging sky. Viviana is now Chile. She
cradles fish under the sky that cries hosanna.
Surprising Christs fall in strange positions onto
the crosses of the sea. Surprising baits rain from
the sky: a last prayer rains, a last passion , a last
day under the sky’s hosannas. Infinite skies fall
in strange positions onto the sea.
Infinite skies fall, infinite skies of broken legs, of
arms bent against the neck, of heads twisted
against backs. Skies weep downward falling in
broken postures, in clouds of broken backs and
broken skies. They fall, they sing.
That’s your mother, there. That’s your son.
That’s your son. Viviana hears the arches of eye-
brows incredibly raised, hears eyes endlessly
open falling from the sky’s eyebrows. Hears the
nails sinking into the cross of the ocean. The
whole Chilean sea is the cross. Infinite plains
sing from the sky the hosanna of the cross
which is the sea, of the food which falls like
plains, like pieces of bread into the sacred
stomach of the fish. Viviana hears infinite sacred
shoals emerging, infinite fish singing with a
voice taken from the sky.
The fish go up into she sky. Surprising baits
rained down with surprising days, with images of
almond trees with loves cut short. Surprising
baits rained on the sacred sea, on the sacred fish.
The sea is holy, holy the wide plains of human
fruits that fall, the fish holy. I heard infinite days
falling, bodies that fell with skies, with fields
glimpsed between them, with trees like a chorus
of crosses that sang out in song-sung waters.
Viviana cradles the holy sea. Viviana says some-
where in these sacred waters is her son.
Holy skies rained down. Infinities of water like
children of the holy sky, yes, like pieces of bread,
like holy baits beneath the ocean cross of Chile.
They wept, rained down children of loves that
never more, of endless meadows that fell in
flames, of bushes that burn and do not burn up.
Viviana hears whole skies fall like almond trees
in flower, like pink cheeks in flower on the
redeemed sea of Chile.
The bush that is the Chilean sea burns and does
not burn up.
The holy plains of the sky burn falling. Human
baits fall onto the flaming bush of the ocean.
The fish swim up singing with the voice of the
sky, shoals, infinities of fish rise up from the
Strange suns sing raining from the sky, strange
fruits on the sacred ocean.
Fish in flames leap, amazing baits burn in the
sea. Holy skies rained. Bushes of Chile, there are
your sons. Bushes of Chile, there is the sea in
See there the sea burning. Viviana hears skies
burning among the flames of the sea, bushes
that don’t burn up, children of amazing bushes
that burn without being consumed among the
flaming waves. Strange days burn falling on the
sea, amazing sacred baits that fall and sing upon
the burnt pastures of the sea. Viviana is today
Chile. She hears songs emerge from the water in
flames, she hears the sacred sky burning with
love upon the burning breakers. She hears the
INRI of her love rise burning on the burning
meadows of the Pacific.
She hears the INRI of the skies burning. Oceans
and seas of Chile hear the INRI of the skies
Surprising rose-blood baits rained from strange
clouds over the sea, surprising incense-colored
seas rise up now singing with the bait of the fish
in the sky.
Listen to the song of the fish rising to the sky.
Burning, the sacred ocean of Chile burning.
Flames like incense tinge with blood and rose
the burnt meadows of the Pacific
Were thrown. Heavy with strange seed,
ploughed fields cover the sea.
Raúl Zurita | INRI
Translated by William Rowe
PUBLISHED BY THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
Poet of the Disappeared: On the Writing of Raúl Zurita
By Norma Cole
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Today or a Million Years Ago: An Interview with Raúl Zurita
By Daniel Borzutzky
This interview took place on Sunday, April 13, 2014 in the lobby of the Washington Square Hotel in Manhattan. I had spent the weekend talking and working with Raúl; two nights before, on Friday, April 11, I was scheduled to do a reading for Thom Donovan’s series at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. That afternoon I invited Raúl to join me, and to give a reading there as well. I’ve read with Raúl at fancy universities and festivals, but we’ve also read on more than one occasion at dark and crowded, unassuming bars and parties. There’s no sense of preciousness here, no sense that one audience is more appropriate for Raúl’s poetry than another. The next night, on Saturday, April 12, it was Urayoán Noel’s birthday, and we all went out to celebrate. We walked to a Cuban restaurant in the West Village. I explained to Urayoán and Raúl that the only other time I had been to this restaurant, a year before, Cameron Diaz was there. And sure enough, when we walked in Cameron Diaz was there again. Urayoán Noel, Raúl Zurita and Cameron Diaz all in a room together. History keeps happening again and again. The next day we worked at a cafe and then sat in the hotel lobby and conducted this interview, which is about the writing of the poems in my translation of The Country of Planks (just published by Action Books, 2015, and with excerpts from the book at Circumference).
Daniel Borzutzky: Earlier, when we were speaking about The Country of Planks, you told me that these poems were your Inferno.
Raúl Zurita: In the background to these poems there is a series of paintings by Bacon called “The Crucifixion,” and in these paintings you never see the cross, but only the figures that surround it, enraged figures, a rage as if they had been pierced by an uncontainable fury, a desperation. I think these poems, then, are like a crucifixion, where the cross is never shown. Instead you see the crowds that surround the cross; finally, what is being shown is a Christ who is never present; the only thing reflected, finally, is the pain and the violence human beings inflict on other human beings. For me it’s always been important to think that this writing is realistic; the characters are imaginary, but the scenarios and situations are depicted as real, the names of the streets, of people, are real, but the characterizations are imaginary. What happens is real but it is presented as allegory.
DB: Then if this is your crucifixion, who is being crucified, who is your Christ, who is being killed?
RZ: This will sound a bit grandiloquent, but what is being killed is humankind; it’s the crucifixion of humanity; the pain that humans inflict upon themselves and the pain they inflict upon others. These are situations without hope. It’s an attempt to arrive at, to touch the darkest zones, the most wounded zones of our experience and our history. Because only by arriving at these points is it possible to reimagine the ability to hope, and to reimagine the possibility of a new life because if you don’t look at those darknesses, at this capacity for evil, then you can’t ever imagine something that has a bit of light.
DB: And when you say that this is your Inferno, it’s important to note that you have already written Anteparaiso and Purgatorio. And that this is, well, we don’t want to say it’s the ending, but I do want to ask how this fits within the trilogy.
RZ: I would say that it’s the Inferno of the world. I had always thought that the Inferno was unwritable. If it were able to be written, this would be its Inferno. And then Purgatorio would come.
DB: I’m going to ask you now about a specific poem from the section called My God is No, which is titled “My God is Hunger, My God is Snow, My God is No,” which begins with Adam and Eve. I have two things to say here to start: If this is the Inferno, then I think we can also say it’s a Genesis. Do you see as well in here a world that is being formed?
Passing in front of the enormous openings that for
thousands of millions of years were printed in the sky
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the sky: they comment
to each other aiming at them with their cameras while up
ahead the enchained gates of Eden were being sketched
and a bit beyond Adam and Eve hitchhiking on one side
of the old highway drifting away mocking youthful
RZ: I want to say that while it is an Inferno, I also laughed quite a bit while writing these poems; I laughed at the image of Adam and Eve hitchhiking after they’d been thrown out of paradise. And while I’m not a big reader of comic books, I think that there is a sensibility that is pretty similar; the historical times are intermixed; there are the tourists on the highway to paradise, bombed out neighborhoods, there are scenarios that converge, and if I didn’t write it, I would probably like to draw it, to turn it into a comic book, but I think that its background is always dramatic. But that didn’t stop me from laughing a little: when the characters of Adam and Eve are mixed in with the bombings, the Japanese tourists who see Nagasaki and Hiroshima floating in the sky. People don’t laugh a lot when they read my writing. I think that I have a sense of humor which is post-mortem in reality, but the truth is I also laughed while creating this.
DB: I think I told you that I laughed in the poem, also from My God is No, titled “My God does not Wake Up, My God Does Not Love/My God Does Not Wake Up/My God Does Not See.” The poem starts in the distant past where Magellan is crossing the Andes and he sees some straits and immediately he names them and identifies them as the straits of Magellan, as if their existence as the straits of Magellan predated the name he gave them:
Crossing the foamy ocean the splitting breakers
bursting over the peaks of the Andes It’s the strait
of Magellan says Magellan as he steers between the
sunken islands of the cordilleras These are the new
caravels of the Pacific we reply watching the plains of
Nagasaki and Hiroshima pass before the Chilean sky
filled with dust drifting like two days shattered into
pieces coming closer between the fjords
I laughed at the absurdity of Magellan naming the straits at the moment he sees them, but at the same time I was really intrigued with the image of Nagasaki and Hiroshima passing in front of Chile. So I wanted to ask you a bit about that because I think this book doesn’t remain so much in Chile as some of the older ones. The other ones have universal elements, of course, but here I think there is more of a conscious effort to put Chile in a more international and transhistorical context.
RZ: Who was it that said “to see a world in a grain of sand”—it was Blake. In these poems, I imagine a world, and this is something that is repeated often, that these things have happened recently, or they have happened millions of years ago. It’s as if someone arrives and is seeing everything that is happening now, but that they are seeing it from very far away, from a great distance. So the scenarios I create in these poems take place on a destroyed earth, an earth that is shredded to pieces, and in which all of the damaged people, all of the wounded, everything coexists at the same time. I think this also has to do with the reality of our contemporary world, of the image and of the Internet in which there is not one fixed time but rather thousands of ‘times’ happening in the same second. Something that has always affected me is a song of Bob Dylan’s called “Dream 115,” where he goes walking along the highway and he suddenly finds himself facing three ships and he asks the captain what his name is and why he doesn’t drive a truck, and the captain just says that his name is Columbus, and I just say “good luck.” And that crossing traverses absolutely distinct time periods and I think that’s much more real, and much more representative of our lives today: that there are multiple layers of reality happening in one solitary second, and in these poems, while there are things that make me laugh, there are things that also make me want to cry, especially in My God is No: the images of the burnt children, for example…. So, you have to take another look at what we have seen thousands of times before: we see burnt children, children dying of hunger every day. Poetry gives you the possibility to stop and focus on, and to see all the horror and all the chaos implicated in these images. And at the same time it allows you the ability to desacralize it. A politically correct attitude is fine in life, but not in art.
DB: Returning to the idea that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their aftermaths are happening at the same time and in the same space as the Chilean dictatorship, it seems to me that inside of this there is an argument: that human atrocities cannot be separated.
RZ: I have the sense that any victim of violence, of war, of torture, of bombings is a failure for all of humanity. If you are being tortured, or if you are being killed, it can be in the United States, it can be in Vietnam, that situation is a disaster for all of humanity. Thus this great disaster is transformed in a quotidian manner…. The apocalypse is not when the world ends, it’s when one single person is killed, when one person is tortured, in reality it’s the entire universe that becomes deformed. I think those things are present in there… a tortured Chilean or Argentine, or a child being killed by napalm in Vietnam, or someone trying to escape from the Twin Towers, or someone in a concentration camp, it’s the same thing; it’s the same terror; and it’s reiterated and reiterated and reiterated as if it never stops happening. I think that poetry and art have to narrate those things, to speak them, and at the same time, to believe that they might be able to exorcise them…. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example: I remember something that happened in Sarajevo in 1991, two kids who were shot to death on a bridge. One was Muslim and the other was Serbian, and they killed them because they were trying to escape; they were from two completely different groups, and everyone called them—and it was headlined this way in the newspapers—the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo. But Romeo and Juliet was written so there would never again have to be future Romeos and Juliets. So I feel there’s an obligation to reveal the tragedy and always with the unrealized dream that those disasters will cease to occur. And at the same time, in the world in which we live, in the world of victims and victimizers, that figure so antiquated, obsolete, so solitary, the poet, continues to be the first victim among the victims, and the first one who stands up among those victims to say that these things are happening all at once. These poems are part of a book that takes place in one day: a night, an afternoon, and a morning, which is one concrete day in the history of Chile, but at the same time, this moment contains all of the history of humanity. In any place, where one person is victimized by another: everything passes through that moment; Hiroshima passes through it; Auschwitz passes through it; Chile passes through it; everything passes through it.
DB: We are now in 2014. The dictatorship ended in 1990. The dictatorship lasted 17 years and we are now 24 years into the post-dictatorship era. Now that Chile has settled into this post-dictatorship era, how has your poetry changed. Which is to say that if you began with the dictatorship, if the dictatorship formed you, as both a poet and a person, how has this post-dictatorship era formed you?
RZ: The truth is that one wishes he were able to forget, but it’s impossible to forget. People say, “we can’t forget,” but what this doesn’t capture is that 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, because if you don’t have this you succumb to it, you break, you go mad. So, strictly speaking what this has to do with poetry is that I keep believing in an art, in a poetry whose main principle is a force. A force. Even if it’s completely utopian, completely mad, the force to continue wagering on the possibility of the construction of a paradise, even if all the evidence that we have at hand tells us that this mission is insane.
DB: The book that we are now editing is called The Country of Planks and this is named after a section called “The Country of Planks” from the massive book Zurita, published in Chile in 2011. In this section each poem is named after a prison that existed during the Pinochet dictatorship. And so I think it’s interesting to think of these poems as a document of history. Which is to say that one does not normally think of constructing the history of a country by documenting its prisons, but I think that if a reader begins to investigate all the names of the prisons she will find an important way of entering the history of political repression in Chile. And so I think it’s interesting to think about these poems alongside of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports which on the one hand were important and on another hand so limited in what could actually be documented. So this is a way of asking if you see these poems, named after the prisons, as forms of either historical texts or testimonials.
RZ: I think it’s both of these things and neither at the same time. Yes, in one way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports were extremely important, but they don’t take into account the massive rupturing, the massive damage, and how that damage also implicates a future. In these poems, this is what the country felt like to us: a prison camp, a military prison camp in an occupied country. And so I imagined those prison camps, those barracks made of wood, and I imagined the entire country this way. Now, beyond this, I can’t say a whole lot more. Of course, poetry is not the same as history. But I think it comes before history in the way in which it represents realities and individuals that come up against them. So, it’s like a an X-ray, a history of human emotions, and a history of how individuals are affected by the real.
DB: Thinking about this a bit more, the Truth Commission Reports of course form a history, but at the same time they also form a narrative about how history is constructed, especially considering how limited the commissions were in terms of the voices that were able to participate, and this had to do with the negotiations between the military and the transitional government at the end of the dictatorship. So on one level, I think that the truth commission is less a historical document than it is a document about how history itself is constructed. Leaping from this to your writing: you talked earlier about how in your poems the characters were real but the contexts were imaginary, and so I see these poems as almost a documentary poetics that comments upon the impossibility of actually writing that history.
RZ: I think it’s amazing what you’re saying. Yes, these truth commissions have something very superficial about them, something rhetorical, something very inconsequential, and I think that the history I am interested in is, finally, the history of a poetry. Which is to say that poetry has been a great receptacle for the monstrous and sublime forms of history that humanity has gone about constructing. History says that in the year 1200 BC there was a city that fought with another over routes of commerce. That city was called Troy, and I think The Iliad is the song of all the disgraces and all of the nightmares that had appeared and that were awaiting humanity in the next two or three thousand years. I don’t know. I can’t really have a rational consciousness about what I write, but I feel that these poems that go through you, that you write, maybe, tell the story of a tiny bit of the life you have lived. In any case, I am only able to speak through a determined set of circumstances. But the poem, how humanity is affected, how people are affected, how their tragedies and even their great dreams are represented–the great spectacle of this has been what we’ve come to understand through the poem.
But as for these poems, and how history informs them, it’s a constructed country, a country of planks, and this also has a symbolic function, it also unites all of the victims. I think that poetry either touches zones of the humanity which we share that goes beyond facts and details, that goes beyond statistics, and if it doesn’t do this then really it’s not doing anything. In Europe, between 1912-1950, there were 80 millions deaths. Who draws attention to this: that’s what art is. Art draws attention to things of this magnitude. Poetry is something like the hope for that which has no hope. It’s like the opportunity for that which has no opportunity. It’s the most intimate and deepest perception of the collective acts taken against the individuals that we are. In the end, the numbers conceal, the statistics conceal, history conceals, and what is concealed emerges in the poems. This either emerges, or it’s nothing. Either the poem contains all the pain and all the shock of humanity confronting the biggest cataclysms, or if it doesn’t then poetry doesn’t do anything. But beyond this I just don’t know. Why was it a country of planks? I don’t know why. I know that I have the images of the barracks; and the Chacabuco prison camp was entirely made of planks. But why a person writes exactly what he writes, each day this becomes more mysterious to me. It’s as if the poet is little more than a scribe for the dreams and the nightmares that come to him.
DB: This is another poem from the book, from a section called Fleets in the Mist, #622, which also unites the Japanese and the North American in a Chilean setting. And there’s an image of the portrait of Pinochet that covers the cliffs facing the sea. I think it’s interesting that the ones who are looking at it are Japanese. So, part of the question has to do with how we can contextualize the portrait of Pinochet in the context of this natural setting, with the sea and the cliffs. What does it mean to you to think of Pinochet’s portrait hanging so prominently over the Chilean landscape?
RZ: I don’t know very much, you have to realize, but at the same time that image, when they ask: who the fuck is he, who is this guy…did you see that movie by Tarantino, the one with Hitler (Inglorious Basterds) in which Tarantino is simply trying to kill Hitler, and to kill him in the way that he would have imagined. And it’s a film that’s completely irreverent and comic, but it’s deeply truthful, more truthful than many films that focus on this same theme; and it’s truthful because it reflects the dream of what gbh one would have liked to do have seen happen. And it’s fearless and that’s why I like it a lot, it’s not afraid to approach the sacred, the untouchable. And so hopefully these poems have something like this in them. They take the symbols used, either for good or for evil, the symbols that are most untouchable, the ones you are not supposed to approach, and they combine them and in the process they tell a story, and they reveal certain images where the good and the evil inter-cross each other and where, finally, Pinochet becomes a figure who appears to be a bit ridiculous. But also in those poems there’s a part with the British fleets retreating from the Malvinas, defeated… so these poems are taking the symbols, better said, they bring us back to the great historical landmarks in order to look at them again, and to look at them again with the light of your own fantasy, the light of your own dreams, and the light of the history that you are telling.
DB: Well, if I had written the poem, Pinochet’s portrait would be hanging on the tallest skyscrapers of Chicago. In one way, this is part of the identity that I have formed as a falso-Chileno living Chicago, but at the same time I see that there’s something fairly truthful in this: which is that Chile was on the vanguard of neoliberalism, and much of the economic policies we see being implemented right now in the United States, were polices that were first implemented in Chile.
RZ: Right, Chile implemented a pure neoliberalism even before Margaret Thatcher did, and it was an ideal situation for it; since everything was completely suppressed there could be no resistance. Yes, you’re completely right.
DB: Part of my agenda here is to reverse the ways in which we think about influence. Because the standard way of thinking here is that the United States influences the rest of the world, but in this case I think Chile was the laboratory for the neoliberal experiments in the United States, by the so-called Chicago Boys at the University of Chicago: the austerity measures; the destruction of public education; the privatization of everything; the criminalization of the poor and dispossessed; these moves, perfected by Pinochet, are now recontexutalized in Chicago. And Chicago has thus become a Chilean city.
RZ: Right now, it’s not the case that Chile is a laboratory. But Chile, for forty years was a laboratory for everything. First it was a laboratory for what was called the Revolución en Libertad, which was an attempt to form a revolution administered by a US government aid program called Alianza para el Progreso, during the time of President Eduardo Frei (1964-1970). Then came the revolution of the Chilean road to Socialism under Allende, the first experiments in socialism to take place by a democratically elected government. Afterwards came the experiments with neoliberalism. It’s pretty amazing how my poor little country has functioned as a laboratory for so many different things.
DB: All of these poems were published in your book Zurita, which is a book of over 700 pages. I remember you telling me at some point that this book was going to have another title.
RZ: Yes, at one point, I was going to call the book Mein Kampf. But I considered it, and decided that no one was going to understand me, so I didn’t use that title. But I considered it because I precisely wanted for the inferno to be everything that was outside of the book, but not the book itself. But it wouldn’t have been understood and so I didn’t do it. Nicanor Parra tried to convince me to use that title. But I thought: if he likes the title so much, why doesn’t he use it himself.
[DB editorial note: and of course it should be said that Karl Ove Knausgaard would actually use the title Mein Kampf when the first book in his series came out in 2009]
DB: Why did Parra like the title so much?
RZ: Well, of course there is that book by Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas. It would have been something that connotes the Inferno. An inferno that is not inside the book, but an inferno that is outside of it. I actually thought about calling my first book Mein Kampf. A country occupied by the dictatorship, which was directly in line with the thinking of the Nazis. Since we were living among Nazis I thought to call the book Mein Kampf. But I didn’t do it.
DB: To conclude, talking about the book as a part of history, and part of a story that in twenty years from now will be even more distant to the experience of the dictatorship, how do you think a young reader in Chile will come to your poems. On one level, this is a way of asking what importance the dictatorship will have to Chileans in twenty years, but on another level, with all of the references to the prisons, the specific references to the dictatorship in your poems, do you think these references will be publicly understood, especially by a newer generation of readers.
RZ: The truth is, I don’t ever really think about it. I never try to see myself from the point of view of the reader because I think that as soon as you think about a reader, as soon as you think about how your work is going to be read, everything becomes paralyzed. I don’t know. And it’s not on my horizon either. Now, what I have seen among younger artists is an amazing reiteration of the same themes reinterpreted in new forms. The way the musical groups reinterpret them, and keep on reinterpreting them, and they keep returning to those years. I would like to be a good reader, myself, of my own poems, to understand, why the hell this particular coup d’etat, this dictatorship, had such a great effect on the country as a whole. The Argentineans, who had so many more victims than the Chileans, are so much more settled with their history than we are. What happened in Chile, it made Pinochet into a symbol, an archetype and we can’t escape it. It’s still there, almost as if it had happened yesterday. Maybe this also has to do with its poets. The war in Troy was also a miniscule event. Troy was a little thing. But something happened there that lasted. In Chile it’s really as if the dictatorship had happened yesterday. And I think the poems talk about that. But I don’t really know very much. I don’t understand it very well.