Blog Post

World Poetry Grindhouse

Are you on the record anywhere about Carlos Ramírez Hoffman or Carlos Weider?

That was the indelicate question I kept mulling over—and ultimately kept to myself—during the Q and A session after Raúl Zurita's Sept. 26 poetry reading here at Northwestern University, where Zurita was accompanied by his latest translator, Anna Deeny.

Zurita is perhaps the most prominent Chilean poet alive today (pace the nonagenarian Nicanor Parra). He is most renowned for his poetico-political resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship, articulated through the actions of a conceptual performance group, CADA, which he helped to found in Santiago in 1979, and in the startlingly beautiful volumes of poetry, such as Purgatorio and Anteparaíso, that launched his international career in the early 1980s.

Among the most well-known instances of Zurita's conceptual poetry is an earthwork or geoglyph, bulldozed in the arid ground of the Atacama desert shortly after the demise of the Pinochet regime. It reads "ni pena ni miedo" in lowercase cursive, a phrase translatable as "neither shame nor fear" or "neither sorrow nor fear." This minimalist clause, a modest expiation of a violent interlude in national history, has been re-inscribed—immodestly—on the geological scale of natural history. At 3 kilometers long, it is in fact so large that it can only be "read" from the air. As an imaginary point of comparison, one could picture Ungaretti's classically laconic poem "Mattina" ("m'illumino / d'immenso") glinting across a muddy stretch of the war-torn Isonzo River, as though it were projected directly by the rising sun.

I had long wondered if Zurita was familiar with U.S. land art when ni pena ni miedo was composed/bulldozed, and that was a question I did manage to ask him later in the evening. He informed me tersely that he was well aware of the works of Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson. We agreed that the implicit analogy he created between the Mojave and the Atacama as conceptual canvases pointed toward a moving hemispheric vision of "el doble continente." However, I did not have the chance to resolve another nagging curiosity I have about ni pena ni miedo, which is its fastidious "penmanship." It has been scribed—or perhaps unearthed is better—in a script that resembles Getty-Dubay cursive (less loopy and ornamental than D'Nealian, although this may be a later modification by the poem's caretakers). Thinking back to ancient precedents like the "plowing" poetic line boustrophedon, cursive could make practical sense for writers of continuous text in the ground. But this not the case here. The letter p in pena, for example, begins with a calligraphic flourish, a sort-of-serif that, by my quick calculation, must be more than 200 meters long. The p's ornament has no functional explanation. It is a huge, decorative element that exceeds the earth poem's economy of scale. 

Ni pena ni miedo has become a permanent Atacama fixture owing to local maintenance, and it thus dwarfs Zurita's earlier, more fleeting coup de grace: a sky-writing effort from his poem La Vida Nueva. On a clear blue day in June, 1982, a dozen or more phrases beginning "MI DIOS ES HAMBRE / MI DIOS ES CANCER / MI DIOS ES NIEVE [...]" scrolled from a plane across the Manhattan sky before dispersing into the atmosphere. A transnational homage to the Latino presence in the U.S. ("MI DIOS ES CHICANO" reads one line), it was also an open profession of poetic faith that the sky, like the desert, could serve as the "page" for a truly "human" poetry of the future.

The rainy Evanston evening nearly thirty years later could never match the sublime grandiosity of the 1982 skywriting performance, although the room packed in full with Zurita's old devotees and new enthusiasts. It was the first of Zurita's two Chicago 'appearances' on a whirlwind U.S. circuit, thanks to the largess of Chicago's Poetry Foundation. His reading in the foundation's gorgeous new building the following night was, however, the scene of an irksome protest by a showy group of young U.S. poets—in putative homage to CADA and against the Foundation. Zurita came from Germany, and by now he has left for South Africa. Would that his poems puffed from the jet props behind him wherever he flew. I felt some tiny disappointment upon imagining his ethereal cloud-poem replaced by the humdrum, streaky carbon footprints of his global reading junket.

Zurita was visibly worn out from so much travel, although he managed to read with a disarming, crouched and brooding intensity, as if harnessing a maudite sensibility in the Rimbaldian tradition he occasionally invokes in his poems and in conversation. "Mis amigos creen que / estoy muy mala," whispers Zurita's self-mutilating dramatis persona Raquel at the outset of Purgatorio, a gender troubling opener that rings eerily dissonant coming from Zurita's smoky, basso profundo voice. Verbal transgendering is given away under the sign of "sickness." More jarring still, the following page of the book is comprised of Zurita's government ID photo with the stenciled letters "EGO SUM" printed below. Je est un autre, indeed. Although Zurita openly marshals this kind of complex thinking about lyric subjectivity, I thought I detected—in the pseudo-religious silences of the academic poetry recital environment—a longing for his act of expressive eyewitness against the deprivations he suffered in the 1970s. This foregone testimonio haunts his unwillingness to conflate himself with his poetic personae.

So who are Carlos Ramírez Hoffman and Carlos Weider anyway? And why might Zurita have a thorny opinion about them?

Carlos Ramírez Hoffman is Roberto Bolaño's ideologically confused, roman à clé evisceration of Zurita in the penultimate chapter of La literatura nazi en America (1996, trans. Nazi Literature in the Americas, 2008); Carlos Weider is the dilation of the same protagonist in Bolaño's subsequent novella Estrella Distante (1996; trans. Distant Star, 2004). While Zurita was arrested and tortured by the Pinochet regime in the early days of the dictatorship, Ramírez Hoffman and Weider are themselves cold blooded Pinochet militants, perpetrators of torture and murder. While Zurita initially envisioned his sky-writing performance occurring not over New York, but over Santiago (in a Chilean military plane no less), it is only Ramírez Hoffman who ultimately writes his poems from the very planes used to disappear bodies into volcanoes and into the sea. While Zurita's poems artfully play upon a traditional framework of Catholic political poetry ("Dantean vision" as John Ashbery has called them), Ramírez Hoffman's sky poems are a blistering melee of Latin and biblical reference that the "Bolaño" narrator observes from a prison camp as illegible madness. In the allusion that makes the joke most explicit, Zurita's string of "DIOS" phrases against the azure noonday sky become Hoffman's black "MUERTE" phrases, barely legible against a stormy, tarnished dusk.

In Bolaño's hands, Zurita is made "evil," subjected to a systematic, Manichean reversal. If Zurita's art purports to "resist" Pinochet's political authority, Bolaño's fiction purports to resist Zurita's literary authority. But if Bolaño's novellas adduce nasty ideological latencies in literary paragons with sinister relish, they also harness a tradition of sleazoid exploitation. "Go on casting Zurita as the distinguished ambassador of a contemporary world poetry," Bolaño seems to say. "But don't you know that the entire confederation of world poets are merely extras in a huge grindhouse flick?"

My understanding of the Zurita-Bolaño relationship is highly indebted to Héctor Hoyos, who offers a definitive account in his forthcoming work on the "global" Latin American novel at the turn of the 21st century. Hoyos links Bolaño's re-writing of Zurita to a complex discourse of Latin American "Nazism." For Hoyos, "Nazism" names heterodox right wing ideologies, which collectively comprise a coded discourse of globalization in recent Latin American prose. Unlike Hoyos, I have hardly mounted a full-scale search through the Latin Americanist scholarship on this connection, and I am thus wary of exhibiting the pitfalls of gringo Bolañomania, well-characterized by Jorge Volpi and—in these very pages—by João Cezar de Castro Rocha. (Meredith Ramirez Talusan, Gregory Jusdanis and Lee Konstantinou have all spoken in Arcade to other transnational flows and blockages in similar terms). But what interests me here remains a simpler, almost banal literary-historical lacuna: that there is, to my knowledge, no public record of Zurita's own feeling toward the vilification Bolaño foists upon him. In the prose-dominant ecology of world literature, we might begin to ask what resources world poetry has in its defense against Bolaño's proliferating contrafactum. We can only imagine Zurita's private horror on first reading Bolaño's fictions. And his silence now roars. 

Bolaño's hit on Zurita invites a different kind of story about the constitution of "world literature," one that, in the first place, doesn't assume the coherence or priority of prose fictional forms. Here, world literature consists of a scandalous novelization (and re-nationalization) of the transnational performance of neo-avant-garde poetry. One could expect friction to be generated by these two modes as they jostle for attention and authority. But the placid surfaces of a "world poetry event" such as the one I attended at Northwestern were unperturbed by Bolaño's impish cannonballs, even as the sales of the New Directions Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star far outpace those of the UC Press Purgatory. It does not seem to me that it is merely a lack of acquaintance in the U.S. with the Chilean literary scene that allows this situation to fester, but rather some kind of generic factionalism, by which certain readers favor contemporary fiction as their lens for world literature, while others are partial to a global neo-avant-garde. Whether one reads Bolaño or Zurita, and no matter whether one does so in Chicago or Concepción, this tandem moment in their climb to global success raises difficult questions of literary-historical priority, as well as the limits of our transnational literary fluency.

Indeed, Bolaño's entire obra is so vast and continuous a disfigurement of works of world literature that any given reader, whether Latin American or otherwise, is forced to recognize his or her limits. For every U.S. reader of Bolaño who is oblivious to the existence of Zurita, surely there is a Latin American reader who is yet to stumble through the works of the mysterious German anarchist and proletarian novelist B. Traven, the probable inspiration for the first section of Bolaño's 2666. While Traven was once a staggeringly popular novelist of the red international, Bolaño's Travenesque "Archimboldi" is little more than the authorial absence around which four critics from different national contexts fall into a sordid comedy of seductions. (To my mind, this comedy comes dangerously close at times to what João Cezar de Castro Rocha champions as "comparative literature as form.")

Bolaño's largely ignored volume of posthumous poems, Los perros romanticos (2006, trans. The Romantic Dogs, 2009) is perhaps his most coherent exercise in world poetry kitsch. It too raises the question of cultural fluency. What ideal reader knows equally well the mediocre poems and politics of Archibald MacLeish (U.S.), the great Italian hermeticist Dino Campana, and the Nicaraguan priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal? Yet each clatters his tin mug against the bars as the unhappy inmate of an oneiric Bolaño poem. MacLeish declares lecherous platitudes about the inter-American poetry he so notably championed in actual fact. He is but a bumbling tourist, inhaling tapas at a Barcelona café (surely Bolaño can not have known Edmund Wilson's wonderful parody poem "The Omelet of A. MacLeish," can he?). Meanwhile, Dino Campana is forced to recant his poetic career, declaring from an insane asylum that he should have remained a chemist. And, in a hectoring reverse catechism, Bolaño probes Cardenal's theological limits on who he will admit into his Kingdom on Earth: "what about masturbators?"

Bolaño's narrators, like his poetic personae, are similarly cagey cosmopolitans, weened on Cold War-era world poetry, while traumatized by the subsequent dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s. They thus live in the kind of world in which one of their Chilean poetic companions, a certain Magdalena Venegas, can be described as a "mind-blowing distillation of Joyce Mansour, Sylvia Plath and Alejandra Pizarnik," only to reappear years later, with grotesque finality, in a mass grave. How I would welcome the chance to read a comparative analysis of the tormented poems of Pizarnik, Plath and Mansour, a promising topic that may never be explored. But in the figure of Venegas, that suggestive constellation is disappeared as quickly as it is conjured. Like Zurita, it too is ceded to the tawdry image of political violence.

As a Tarantino film is to world cinema, so Bolaño is to world poetry—a violent crash of allusion, sleazoid disfigurement, and eroticized reassembly. Bolaño's fictions are 4-ply, mega-absorbent roles of paper towels. They seem to suck up the chaotic stain of literary history as quickly as it spills upon the world. 

Easy though it may be to call into question Zurita's hypothesis that the world poetry of our day will be written on the wind, neither should we consign it to the grindhouse.

Harris Feinsod's picture
Harris Feinsod is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. His work focuses on 20th and 21st century literature of the hemispheric Americas, modern poetry and poetics, and maritime cultural history, especially in the age of the steamship. His first book is The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017).