On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet deposed Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Supported by the CIA and U.S. military forces, Pinochet halted the progress of Allende’s socialist platform and transformed Chile into an export-based neoliberal economy. The multifront coup began shortly before dawn when the Chilean armada occupied the town of Valparaíso. During the coup and throughout the ensuing 17-year dictatorship, tens of thousands of people on the streets, in factories, homes and universities, were rounded up, detained, tortured, murdered and disappeared.
At that time an engineering student at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Valparaíso, Raúl Zurita (b. 1950, Santiago, Chile) was arrested on the morning of the coup and detained and tortured in the hold of a ship called Maipo. ‘None of the poetic forms I knew, nothing’ reflects Zurita, served to comprehend and convey ‘our suffering, but also . . . a strange perpetuity and survival . . . I had to learn how to speak again from total wreckage, almost from madness, so that I could still say something to someone.’ Zurita’s first volume of poetry, Purgatory (1979) is an unprecedented rendering of the ‘wreckage’ that was as much Zurita’s as it was Chile’s. To ‘speak again,’ to ‘say something to someone,’ Zurita pieced together the debris of inadequate forms. The result is a collage of apparently unrelated registers, languages, and documents that range from a passport photo, a handwritten letter, and encephalograms, to Dante and Neruda, non-Euclidean geometries, and the sorrow of a cow. Zurita’s desolate and unsettling poetic voice expands and contracts as it traverses identities and landscapes, figuring as masculine and feminine, saint and whore, human, animal, self and other. To ‘say something to someone’,to ‘speak’ of the incomprehensible suffering beyond any single form, Zurita’s poetic voice emerges as everyone and everything everywhere.
Conceived as the first text of a Dantean trilogy that includes Anteparadise (1982) and La vida nueva (1994), Purgatory is thus a groundbreaking volume of poetry that inaugurates the search for a language capable of comprehending and overcoming the traumatic conditions of life under military rule in Chile. Anteparadise, written and published at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship, is a lamentation of ‘los chilenos destinos,’ ‘Chile’s destiny,’ embodied in the cordilleras and the beaches.
But it is also a reflection on the possibilities of individual will, communal responsibility and hope. In 1982, Zurita orchestrated the writing of the first poem of Anteparadise, ‘La vida nueva’, (The New Life) in the sky over Queens, New York. Intended as an ‘homage to minorities throughout the world’ and, in particular, for ‘the Hispanic population in the United States,’ the white smoke of five planes delineated verses that include ‘MI DIOS ES HAMBRE/ MI DIOS ES CÁNCER/ MI DIOS ES NIEVE/ MI DIOS ES VACÍO/ . . . MI DIOS ES GHETTO,’ (‘MY GOD IS HUNGER/ MY GOD IS CANCER/ MY GOD IS SNOW/ MY GOD IS EMPTINESS/ . . . MY GOD IS GHETTO’). Photographs of the event structure the white and sky-blue pages of the book itself. Published after redemocratization, La vida nueva, is a relentless gallop of poetic voices, a meditation on shame and a requiem, a cathedral of testimonies, literature and history, that merge in a landscape of rivers, cordilleras, oceans, and sky. The last verse of this text, ‘Ni pena ni miedo’ (No shame no fear), monumentally inscribed by Zurita in the Desert of Atacama in 1993, concludes this epic tour de force.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, writer Diamela Eltit, and sociologist Fernando Barcells, Zurita founded an art action group known as CADA, the ‘Colectivo de acciones de arte’. CADA staged protests, performances, art exhibits, and literary readings in streets, brothels, and the sky.
Zurita’s recitals throughout the world and his experimentation with poetic forms, sites of language and materials, have drawn thousands together to experience a poetry that can be held as much within the hand and mind as in the earth and atmosphere. And yet, despite this remarkable breadth of poetic endeavors, he believes that all of it is ‘an extension of Purgatory zones,’ as if it were written to represent a memory and the wreckage that followed.
Raúl Zurita has been awarded the Chilean National Prize for Literature and a scholarship from the Guggenheim Foundation. He was conferred Doctor honoris causa degrees by the Universidad de Alicante, Spain, and the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Chile. Zurita is a professor emeritus at the Universidad Diego Portales. His works have been translated into several languages.
Poetry (first editions)
Purgatorio. Valparaíso Editorial Universitaria, Santiago,1979.
Anteparaíso. Editores Asociados, Santiago, 1982.
El paraíso está vacío. Santiago, 1984.
Canto a su amor desaparecido. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, 1985.
El amor de Chile. Montt & Palumbo, Santiago, 1987.
La Vida Nueva. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, 1994.
Canto de los ríos que se aman. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago, 1995.
Poemas militantes. Dolmen Ediciones, Santiago, 2000.
El día más blanco. Anagrama, Santiago, 2000.
INRI. Madrid: Editorial Visor, 2004.
Mi mejilla es el cielo estrellado. Ediciones Aldus, Mexico City 2004
Tu vida derrumbándose. Eloisa cartonera, Buenos Aires, 2005.
Mis amigos creen. Casa de Poesía, San José de Costa Rica, 2006.
LVN/ El país de tablas. Ediciones Monte Carmelo, Mexico City, 2006.
Los países muertos. Ediciones Tácitas, Santiago de Chile, Santiago, 2006.
Cinco fragmentos. Animita Cartonera, Santiago, 2007.
In Memoriam. Ediciones Tácitas, Santiago, 2007.
Las ciudades de agua. Ediciones ERA, Mexico City, 2007.
Cuadernos de guerra. Ediciones Tácitas, Santiago, 2010.
Zurita. Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, 2011.
El sermón de la montaña. Editorial Cuneta, Santiago, 2012.
Tu vida rompiéndose. Editorial Lumen, Santiago and Barcelona, 2015.
Literatura, Lenguaje y sociedad en Chile, 1973-1983. Ediciones Céneca, . Santiago, 1983.
Sobre el amor, el sufrimiento y el nuevo milenio. Editorial Andrés Bello, Santiago, 2000.
Cantares: 42 nuevas voces de la poesía chilena. Editorial LOM, Santiago, 2004.
El río de la poesía chilena. Center of Spanish Studies, Universidad de Nueva Delhi, Nueva Delhi, India, 2004.
Los poemas muertos. Ediciones Libros del Umbral, Mexico City, 2006.
Saber morir: Conversaciones. Ilan Stavans and Raúl Zurita. Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, 2014.