One of my taglines for several years has been "my god is ghetto," which in 1982 floated, like several other similar phrases, in 8-foot letters of smoke above the city of New York. But that wasn't my doing: Raúl Zurita had contracted a skywriter to declaim lines from his poems above one of the world's great artistic capitals (and the homebase of the United Nations) both to publicize his second book, Anteparaíso, which is one of my favorites, and to call attention to the marginal peoples of the world (including those of his native country, Chile, which was under the control of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet). Supposedly these poetic valentines by this little known poet were visible from many different parts of Gotham.
Zurita has more than once undertaken the grand gesture. A few years before the skywriting stunt, he had grown so disillusioned with the persecution and brutality that were taking place in Chile that as part of a performance piece in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, the capital, after burning his face and masturbating, he tried to blind himself with ammonium acid so that he would never have to see them again (lay eyes upon here takes on more than a metaphorical meaning). He failed, thankfully, which allowed him to accomplish another powerful artistic, but less self-destructive gesture: to finish his trilogy of volumes based in part of Dante's exalted trilogy, and informed by his study of mathematics and his travels across Chile's long, high terrain, in particular, the Atacama Desert, which serves as the basis for a sequence of strange and strangely comic poems. The first volume was Purgatorio (1979) and the last was La Vida Nueva (1994), referring of course to Dante's later La vita nuova.
In the interim he has also published a number of other books of poetry, read all over the globe, and witnessed the political transformation in Chile; whereas he was herded, like thousands of other people, into the hold of the Maipo, a ship, and tortured in 1973 as part of the post-coup crackdown, by 1993, he had served as his country's poet laureate, his voice joining those of some of Chile's greatest lyric artists, including Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra. In 2003, he broke a 3-year silence to publish INRI, a book of poems commemorating the 30th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende and the thousands of victims of torture and murder, the disappeared, in the decades that followed.
Here is my translation of a trifle of his work, one of those brief lyrics in which he speaks of speaking with a version of himself.
As in a dream, when all was lost
Zurita told me it was going to clear
because in the very depths of night
he had seen a star. Then
huddled against the back
of the boat's planked deck
it seemed to me that the light again
lit my lifeless eyes.
That was it. I felt sleep invade me:
Como en un sueño, cuando todo estaba perdido
Zurita me dijo que iba a amainar
porque en lo más profundo de la noche
había visto una estrella. Entonces
acurrucado contra el fondo de tablas del bote
me pareció que la luz nuevamente
iluminaba mis apagados ojos.
Eso bastó. Sentí que el sopor me invadía:
Copyright © Raúl Zurita, 2005. Translation by John Keene, with thanks to Zurita's frequent translator, Jack Schmidt.