Raúl Zurita, winner of the National Literature Prize of Chile and the Pablo Neruda Prize, is one of the most widely acclaimed Latin American poets writing today. He is also one of the most innovative, experimental and controversial. But when Zurita shatters traditional poetic forms and conventional syntax it is because the subject matter he has to deal with is shattering.
Arrested during the Pinochet regime in Chile when he was a university student, his body still carries the scars of the torture he endured. While imprisoned in darkness with 800 others in a space meant to hold 100, and under the constant threat of death, Zurita’s pamphlet of new poems that he carried with him was the lifeline that helped him hold onto his sanity. Because some of the poems they found on him contained drawings, the military thought they were secret codes and beat him savagely. Eventually, they threw the poems into the sea.
Years later, those poems, which he had memorized, became the basis for Purgatorio, one of his most widely acclaimed collections.
Friends and colleagues of Zurita’s were among the countless “disappeared” during the Pinochet regime by being dropped from planes into the sea or volcanoes. When he writes about snowfalls of bodies, he is not writing surrealism; he’s writing fact. And because of the horrific scale of the brutality he witnessed, he was one of many poets of his generation who pushed for a poetry–an anti-poetry as they called it–that would push back against the violence with equal force.
The results include such bold gestures as having the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo” (“Without Pain Or Fear”) from one of his poems bulldozed into the Atacama Desert in letters so huge they can only be read from the sky, and having lines from his poems skywritten above New York City to bring international attention to the suffering of the minorities of the world.
The ferocity of Zurita’s poems is only equaled by their tenderness, which seems almost unbelievable in the face of what he has endured. For a generous sampling of his work watch the video of his reading at the Asheville Wordfest.
Raul Zurita from Laura Hope-Gill on Vimeo.
Author of nearly 20 volumes, he is a Guggenheim fellow and is famous for his powerful readings. Translations of his poetry into English include Song for His Disappeared Love/Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido (2010), Purgatory (2009), INRI (2009 and Anteparaíso (1986).
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